Environmental Issues > Recycling Main Page > All Recycling Documents

Top of Report

Chapter 4

What the Future Holds


How Much More Can We Recycle?

The 24 percent diversion of materials away from landfills and incinerators is an economic hardship on those businesses, even though it is a boon to the environment. Similarly, when recovered materials substitute for virgin timber or other virgin raw materials, extractive industries are adversely impacted. As mentioned earlier, Smith Barney recently reported that because of the increasing use of recycled fiber, demand for all grades of virgin timber-based paper pulp is expected to fall by 70,000 short tons between 1994 and 1997.[187] These competitive economic realities offer certain special interests strong incentives to limit the expansion of recycling and to suggest that the possibilities for further recycling are limited. This outlook was stated quite plainly by John Tierney in the New York Times Magazine:

There aren't many more materials in garbage that are worth recycling.[188]

The Facts Since Japan, Germany, France, Sweden, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Italy all recycle higher percentages of their wastes than does the United States, it is clear we could be doing better.[189] Certainly it seems odd to claim that the United States has reached the practical limit of recycling when more than nine of every ten tons (96 percent) of all plastics discarded into U.S. garbage are not recycled.[190] Currently, two-thirds of all wastepaper is not recycled. Indeed, more than three out of every four tons all of materials (76 percent) discarded in America's municipal waste stream are not recycled[191] (see Table 2). Because of this, and because the commitment to recycling in the United States remains firm, the EPA has recently announced its intention to increase the nation's recycling goal:

[W]hile keeping generation rates constant, [the EPA] believes that it is still possible to do more [than the] EPA's original 25 percent recycling goal -- efficiently and cost-effectively. For this reason, we [the EPA] recently announced our intention to establish a new national recycling goal. We believe that a 35 percent national recycling rate by the year 2005 is a reasonable target.[192]

There are at least three reasons to recycle more than we do now: (1) compared with virgin resource-based industries, when consumer goods are manufactured from already extracted, already refined secondary materials many environmental impacts are avoided; (2) recycled materials very often provide cheaper raw materials for manufacturers; and (3) recycled materials provide environmental and economic benefits for solid waste systems by avoiding the costs and impacts of landfilling and incineration. Although costly add-on technologies at landfills and incinerators help reduce environmental threats, they do nothing to channel environmental benefits upstream, to the manufacturing sector, as does recycling. Moreover, it is now widely recognized that "materials diversion" before landfilling and "fuel cleaning" before incineration can contribute significantly to lessening the adverse impacts of these technologies.[193] Obviously, we can't recycle everything -- it's just not practical. But the United States is quite far away from recycling even half its waste. Contrary to the position advanced against the expansion of recycling programs in the United States, there aren't many materials in garbage that won't provide an environmental benefit if recycled. The riddle is finding the most cost-effective and politically acceptable way to route them to their best markets.


The Role of Government

The question of how to most efficiently structure the financing of waste management programs cannot be separated from the debate about the appropriate role government should play in the system. Municipal waste management always involves some role for government and some role for the private sector. Defining the optimal function for each plays a key role in the debate about the costs and benefits of recycling and other waste management strategies. Blaming government regulators for lacking "common sense" is much in vogue these days, but antiregulatory polemics rarely rise to the pitch of John Tierney's attack on the public officials who determined that recycling made sense:

[T]he crisis of 1987 was a false alarm...[T]he barge's plight convinced everyone that voluntary [recycling] enterprise was not enough...So recycling devotees hit on a new solution: if people aren't willing to buy our precious garbage, we'll force them...Just as central planning was going out of fashion in eastern Europe, America devised a national five-year plan for trash...The Federal Government and dozens of states passed laws that required public agencies, newspapers and other companies to purchase recycled materials. Newspapers and magazine publishers [are] paying for...regulations that force them to buy recycled paper.[195]

The Facts The fate of the Mobro garbage barge was a defining moment in raising the consciousness of Americans about heedless consumption patterns and casual management of recyclable or dangerous wastes. In 1987, the year the Mobro was looking for a port in which to dump its cargo of rotting garbage -- which originated from Long Island, N.Y., towns -- nine out of every ten tons of municipal waste discarded in the United States were not recycled, despite two centuries of voluntary, free-market conditions.[196] Despite the Cato Institute's allusion to recycling as being "the equivalent of Soviet planning"[197] and John Tierney's far-fetched analogy in "Recycling Is Garbage" between recycling regulations and an eastern European (communist) "five-year plan," the fact is that to this day Congress has never passed a law that requires recycling. The only recycling requirement in force at the federal government level is a Presidential Executive Order that requires executive branch agencies to buy recycled paper and other products as long as the price is the same for products made from virgin materials.[198]

The 25 percent EPA recycling goal set in 1998 for municipal solid waste was a nonbinding, voluntary guideline articulated under President George Bush, designed to assist local governments in their efforts to manage waste. Any comparison of a voluntary guideline issued by the EPA with "Soviet planning" is an extravagant distortion. In contrast to five-year plans imposed by dictators, the EPA's guidelines emerged from a special task force that held public meetings and solicited input from a broad range of interested persons and groups, including duly elected local officials. The EPA's effort at establishing solid waste management guidelines was a cost-effective way to avoid having every state in the nation duplicate resource expenditures to figure out the relative value of waste reduction, recycling, incineration, or landfilling.[199] One of the benefits of the EPA's role was it affirmed the fact that although municipal solid waste management is usually considered a local problem, it has national (and international) environmental and economic implications.

All recycling ordinances have been adopted at the state or local level, which most Americans (72 percent) believe, rather than the federal government, "should determine what pollution control measures are used"[200] to protect the environment. States and localities with local recycling ordinances do not demand that citizens submit to "forced labor" to sort garbage, as John Tierney has claimed.[201] Rather, these local laws require that certain recyclable resources in the waste stream not be mixed together with nonrecyclable materials so they don't become contaminated and lose their market and manufacturing value. References to citizens being mobilized as an army of forced laborers having to "sort through garbage" fundamentally distort the ordinary local recycling process and how the average citizen experiences it.

Not surprisingly, "Recycling Is Garbage" also exaggerated the scope of governmental "buy recycled" procurement mandates. Fourteen states have voluntary agreements with one industry, newspaper publishing, that have been designed to help recycling markets develop for newsprint, the single largest commodity in the United States municipal waste stream; the goal is to move publishers towards a 40 percent recycled-fiber use level by the year 2000. However, only thirteen states subject newspaper publishers -- not magazine publishers -- to a mandatory recycled content schedule. Additionally, one law in California affects the recycling of some plastics. That's it. No other manufacturing industries are subject to any recycled-content laws or agreements. In fact, recycled paper currently represents only 9 to10 percent of the total paper consumed in the United States by magazines and catalogs.

Moreover, because newsprint manufactured from recycled fiber sells for the same price as does newsprint manufactured from virgin timber -- about $600 per ton as of this writing -- there is no financial penalty[202] to publishers who comply with these agreements.[203]

In fact, government procurement policies encouraging the use of recycled newsprint can have a price stabilizing influence on newsprint prices by stimulating more paper production capacity -- in this case recycled-paper -- to come on line: With more supply, price increases are less likely. (Still, less than a third of all newsprint used in the United States is manufactured from recycled fiber, a lower percentage than in other countries.)

Many other products that rely on recycled materials -- including plastics, metals, and glass -- also sell for the same price as (or cheaper than) commodities made entirely from virgin resources. Because virgin-based products have been so heavily subsidized for more than a century, it is indeed a tribute to the economic efficiency of using recycled materials that products manufactured with them can compete effectively in the marketplace. Most consumers aren't aware of how prevalent products made from recycled-materials are. According to a major auto manufacturer, using parts made from recycled plastics results in "no significant increases in our material costs. In fact, it is cheaper. For some parts, two thirds cheaper. It also achieves a marketing advantage for us. We have found that consumers like products made from recycled materials."[204]

Although the federal government and some state and local governments have policies that favor the purchase of recycled-content products by public agencies, usually no price differential is involved and private companies are not affected by these policies unless they choose to do business with the relevant public agencies. Previously, procurement specifications actually discouraged the use by government of recycled paper products. Government procurement guidelines for recycled products, even without price preferences, are a sensible market-based approach designed to encourage the use of environmentally beneficial recycled paper without any mandates. In total, the federal government purchases less than 5 percent of all the paper sold in the United States.[205] Indeed, it is precisely the absence of strong recycling requirements that helps explain why the United States today recycles less than 25 percent of its municipal wastes.

The Mobro incident happened far away from European countries and Japan, but these nations have nonetheless adopted national recycling requirements in recent years -- which the United States has not -- and have accelerated their recycling efforts. To contend that the U. S.'s interest in reducing landfilling and promoting recycling was instigated when this barge floated around the Americas is erroneous. More than ten years before the garbage barge began its ill-fated journey, Congress sought to reduce America's reliance on landfills and established recycling as a national policy objective, not a national requirement, in the nation's first federal Solid Waste Disposal Act. According to Congressional findings enunciated in the 1976 Act:

[A]lthough land is too valuable a national resource to be needlessly polluted by discarded materials, most solid waste is disposed of on land...[M]illions of tons of recoverable material which could be used are needlessly buried each year...[M]ethods are available to separate usable materials from solid waste, and; the recovery and conservation of such materials can reduce the dependence of the United States on foreign resources and reduce the deficit in the balance of payments.[206]

Twenty years after this congressional finding was published, it is still accurate.

In 1986, a year before the barge story emerged, more than two hundred articles appeared in major newspapers and magazines throughout the United States quoting local public works officials throughout the country who found that polluting landfills, rising waste disposal costs, and fights over dangerous waste incinerators were among the two or three greatest public-policy problems they had to deal with. What this indicates is that waste disposal budgets had exploded throughout the early and mid-1980s, before most recycling ordinances were on the books. Consequently, public officials very logically turned toward recycling, which had popular support and provided economic development opportunities. The record is clear in documenting that municipal officials from virtually every region in the United States were among the most vociferous proponents of recycling requirements (which is why so many local ordinances were adopted), and local officials were also in the forefront of lobbying (unsuccessfully) for federal requirements that would obligate consumer-products companies to use more recycled material. Even the National Governors' Association came out with a recommendation that states adopt a 50 percent waste reduction and recycling goal.[207]


The Role of the Media

While distinguished scientists such as Harvard entomologist E.O. Wilson postulate that biophilia -- the "innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms"[208] -- explains, in part, humanity's fascination with natural beauty and biological diversity, antienvironmental interests blame the media. According to the Wall Street Journal, "because garbage is local and visible, it receives more attention from news outlets than any other environmental topic."[209] According to John Tierney, it is not a sense of self-reliance, responsibility to future generations, or prudent interest in conservation that inspires support for recycling. It is, instead, a self-interested media:

Journalists...did a remarkable job of creating the garbage crisis...Mandatory recycling programs aren't good for posterity. They offer mainly short-term benefits to a few groups -- politicians, public relations consultants, environmental organizations, waste-handling corporations -- while diverting money from genuine social and environmental problems.[210]

The Facts The Natural Resources Defense Council asked Phillip Shabecoff to comment on this remarkable statement. As it happens, Shabecoff was a New York Times reporter for thirty-two years; during the last fourteen he covered the environment from his base at the Times's Washington bureau. His tenure at the newspaper overlapped with the barge's voyage. Says Shabecoff:

Contrary to Mr. Tierney's uninformed polemic, journalists did not invent America's solid waste problem nor the benefits of recycling. As an environmental reporter for the Times I wrote many articles on the garbage issue, and they were not works of fiction but were based on factual information from government, industry and citizens' organizations. For example, it was the Environmental Protection Agency during the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George Bush, hardly radical green administrations, that warned of the growing solid waste problem and set a goal of recycling 25 percent of the waste stream.

I wrote a number of stories based on the reports by corporations such as the Dow Chemical Company and 3M that reported savings of millions of dollars a year after they started recycling materials they had previously thrown away or emitted into the air and water as pollution.

I wrote about states engaged in constitutional confrontations with other states about the right to ship waste across their borders, about fruitless searches by big waste management companies for new landfill space, about soaring tipping fees, about scientific studies on the dangers of incineration and, finally, about the commonplace inequity of siting landfills in areas occupied by the poor, often in minority communities.

While "Recycling Is Garbage" has described recycling as an American folly, communities around the world have discovered the necessity and the utility of conserving their resources -- and their urban space -- through recycling. [John Tierney's] cavalier dismissal of the value of recycling flies in the face of a widening global consensus that the resources of a finite world must be husbanded.

The New York Times' article is verification of the truism: garbage in, garbage out.[211]

Hardly a creation of journalists in America, improper waste management has for centuries been recognized as a major public health threat. And the common sense -- and economic value -- of recycling has been recognized just as long, going back at least to the ancient Mayan civilizations.[212]


The Public's Widespread Support

In "Recycling Is Garbage" John Tierney claims that recycling "diverts money from genuine social and environmental problems." In fact, it is hard to think of any social policy that might help remedy so many genuine social and environmental problems as recycling. Recycling's claim to the hearts and minds of most Americans, Europeans, and Japanese is based on its well-known and broad agenda. It seeks to address the public-health threats of improper garbage management; it helps us avoid environmentally adverse landfilling and threats from incineration; it works to avoid the documented adverse impacts of mining and timber harvesting, petroleum acquisition, transport, and refining; it is helping to avoid the use of chemicals at hundreds of manufacturing plants, and in the backyard garden as well; it reduces imports of raw materials and thereby works to remedy the U.S. foreign-trade deficit; it provides jobs in some of America's poorest communities without subjecting those communities, as do landfills and incinerators, to hazardous air pollutants, explosions, water pollution, and reductions in property values. The claim that these objectives will merely provide benefits to a few politicians, PR people, and environmentalists is indeed a sad commentary on the strength of ideology among antienvironmental groups. For more than a decade public opinion polls have shown two-thirds of Americans oppose the development of landfills in their area, and half regularly oppose to waste-to-energy incinerators, while at least seven out of ten consistently support recycling, the best waste management option.[213] Indeed, a poll conducted in Washington State in the fall of 1996 found "more than 90 percent of Washington State's voters support recycling programs and want the state government to encourage...expanded recycling to include new municipal and industrial wastes and...[higher] recycling goals [even though] Washington State has reached a recycling rate well above the national average."[214]



Notes

187. "The Paper Chase," Smith Barney Research Pollution Control Monthly, Vol. VIII, No.7, August 1995, at p. 5.

188. Tierney, at p. 27.

189. Environmental Performance Reviews: United States, at p. 91; and OECD Environmental Data: Compendium 1995, at p. 171.

190. Characterization of Municipal Solid Waste in the United States: 1995 Update, at p. 6.

191. Same as above.

192. "Sustainability and Recycling: A New Vision for the Future."

193. For a more complete discussion of this issue see "Testimony of the Natural Resources Defense Council before the U. S. Senate Subcommittee on Environmental Protection," Washington, D.C., June 5, 1991.

194. Excerpted from Characterization of Municipal Solid Waste in the United States : 1995 Update (Washington, D.C.: EPA, March 1996), at p. 6.

195. Tierney, at pp. 24 and 26.

196. Characterization of Municipal Solid Waste in the United States: 1960 to 2000: Update 1988 (Washington, D.C.: EPA, March 1988), at p. S-4.

197. Cato Institute report, at p. 20.

198. Executive Order 12873.

199. The Solid Waste Dilemma: An Agenda for Action (Washington, D.C.: EPA, 1989), at p. 1.

200. National Survey of Attitudes on Environmental Policy, Competitive Enterprise Institute, July 25, 1996.

201. And debases language in so doing: putting a soda can in a separate basket from ordinary garbage is hardly the same as the burden of "forced labor," a term usually reserved to describe a crime against humanity or the labor of convicted criminals.

202. Jaakko Poyry, John Wissmann, Senior Project Manager, Tarrytown, N.Y., per. com., July 24, 1996.

203. To assure no infringement on the First Amendment's guarantee of a free press, there are no enforcement provisions in the recycled content "mandates" applying to newspapers.

204. Dr. Horst-Henning Wolf, Leiter, Projekt Recycling Fahrzeuge, BMW AG, Munich, Germany, NRDC Senate/House Recycling Workshop, Munich, Germany, January 9, 1992.

205. Fran McPoland, Federal Environmental Executive, Washington, D.C., per. com. July 24, 1996.

206. The Solid Waste Disposal Act, 42 U.S.C.A.

207. Curbing Waste in a Throwaway World: Report of the NGA Task Force on Solid Waste Management (Washington, D.C.: National Governor's Association: 1990), at pp. 7-8.

208. In Search of Nature, at p. 165.

209. "Waste of a Sort," Wall Street Journal, January 19, 1995, at p.1.

210. Tierney, at pp. 24 and 26.

211. Phillip Shabecoff, memo to the Natural Resources Defense Council, July 18, 1996.

212. Rubbish: The Archaeology of Garbage, William Rathje and Cullen Murphy (New York: Harper Collins, 1992), at p. 33.

213. See, for examples, "Public Attitudes Towards Garbage Disposal," the National Solid Waste Management Association, Washington, D.C: 1988; and "Shades of Green: Eight of 10 Americans are Environmentalists," Wall Street Journal, August 2, 1991, at p. 1.

214. Cited in Solid Waste Report, December 12, 1996 at p. 385.

Sign up for NRDC's online newsletter

See the latest issue >

Give the Gift That Will Make a Difference: Renewable Reality

Our Green Living Guides

Save Energy
Save electricity and money without giving up the comforts of home.
Green Your Event
Lighten the environmental impact of any gathering.
Buying Clean Energy
Switch to renewable energy.
Eat Local
Enjoy local, seasonal foods.

Simple Steps

Enlighten Your Home
Changing your light bulbs to compact fluorescent bulbs is among the easiest things you can do to save energy at home.
Avoid Toxic Flea and Tick Treatments
Some flea and tick treatments may contain toxic chemicals that can poison pets and harm people.
Stay Warm This Winter
Reduce your heating bills with these simple steps.

NRDC Gets Top Ratings from the Charity Watchdogs

Charity Navigator awards NRDC its 4-star top rating.
Worth magazine named NRDC one of America's 100 best charities.
NRDC meets the highest standards of the Wise Giving Alliance of the Better Business Bureau.


Donate now >

Share | |