In 1991, Dr. Allen Hershkowitz, a senior scientist at NRDC, began a bold adventure in environmentalism, creating the Bronx Community Paper Company. Its purpose: to build a state-of-the-art paper recycling plant in the heart of the Bronx, where it could recycle a major portion of New York City's wastepaper and produce environmentally beneficial jobs in the process. It would have been the first and only recycled paper manufacturing facility in the city, and would have made it possible for at least some of the more than 12,000 tons of wastepaper the city produces each day to be recycled without first having to be shipped as far away as Asia.
Hershkowitz envisioned a model of industrial environmentalism: the facility would recycle paper and use recycled sewer water, not freshwater; it would put an abandoned industrial site to use instead of digging up increasingly scarce green space; it would employ state-of-the-art air pollution controls; it would cut hazardous air pollution and the emission of greenhouse gases by dramatically reducing the need to transport the paper; it would help revitalize an economically devastated community by producing hundreds of permanent jobs and mill-related businesses; and more. The project quickly developed broad support -- including from then President Clinton -- and moved through the design phase, permitting, and financing. Then in 1998, the project collapsed when Mayor Rudy Giuliani withdrew his political support. So today, the Maya Lin-designed plant remains unbuilt, a revolutionary vision unrealized.
Allen Hershkowitz presses on nonetheless, working on a variety of new recycling initiatives. And Island Press recently published his book on his experience -- Bronx Ecology: Blueprint for a New Environmentalism. He sat down for an interview in April 2003.
Q: What inspired the Bronx Community Paper Company project?
A: In 1991, I was working at NRDC, and a very significant piece of recycling legislation was defeated in Congress, largely because of opposition from industry. In the course of that effort I led a congressional fact-finding mission to Europe to study recycling. I saw a number of model recycling mills there, one in particular outside Stuttgart, Germany. So after the legislation was defeated, I thought it was time for the environmental community -- and for me personally -- to refocus, and I decided to work on creating a model recycling plant in the United States.
Q: Why the Bronx?
A: A number of reasons. First and foremost: the 12,600 tons of paper discarded each day in New York City, much of it exported as trash. We knew we could make a big impact. Second: a lot of paper travels halfway around the world from New York to distant recycling facilities, and then returns to New York. By building a plant in the city, we could cut thousands of miles of transport out of the equation -- good for the environment, and cheaper. Third, we had a community development goal in mind in the Bronx, too. Unemployment there was 60 percent higher than the national average in 1991 -- for teenagers unemployment was above 50 percent -- and we hoped to bring it down since poverty alleviation is fundamental to a sustainable society.
Q: What was your vision for the project?
A: Initially, it was just to create a recycling facility in the city. But it evolved into a richer effort to live up to our environmental principles, indeed to refine them, in a number of areas. For example, we had to locate it somewhere, so we went out of our way to rehabilitate an urban brownfield, rather than convert an existing greenspace. And we needed a water supply. You know, more than 99 percent of the water used in America is used once, and then discharged, polluted, into a waterway. So we decided to clean up and recycle sewer water, instead of fresh water. And in a variety of ways, we worked to minimize the air pollution the plant would create. It was important to us that this be a healing project, one that remedied problems rather than just being "not as bad."
Q: Maya Lin designed the facility. I imagine most recycling plants have a much less distinguished architectural designer. Why her?
A: Because design is fundamental to environmentalism. Most industrial projects are rejected in communities because they're aesthetically intrusive, they don't enhance a sense of community, or for that matter, property values. If somebody proposed an ugly factory for my neighborhood I'd be offended. So having it enhance the community was an imperative. Also, we wanted the plant to educate people about recycling, and so her design had many elements of transparency, making the process visible to visitors, with walkways and viewing areas. It was designed to welcome the community.
Q: Did the economic development goal conflict with the environmental goals of the effort?
A: No, they were mutually reinforcing. Two critical decisions a developer makes are where to locate a project, and where to get raw materials. We planned to put the plant right in the city, thus taking advantage of a huge and steady stream of recyclable materials, and sewage water. That would mean less habitat impacts, less water and air pollution. It would also mean lower costs for us, and help for the community, economically and otherwise.
Q: How much of a dent would the facility have made in New York's export of paper trash?
A: By itself, it could have consumed all of the wastepaper collected by the New York City Department of Sanitation at the time. Of course, the city was, and is, only recovering a fraction of the wastepaper being generated, so there was room for expansion. The city could support four or five such plants.
Q: What problems did you have?
A: The unfortunate truth is that in a society built on nonsustainable practices, it's na´ve to think you'd suddenly be able to build an industrial facility that's both sustainable and economically competitive. For example, it's cheaper to convert a greenfield than a brownfield. And it's easier to connect to freshwater than to develop a sewage water recycling system. Because it involves a business-to-business agreement, virgin timber is easier to contract for than recycled paper, which often involves a harder to obtain government-to-business contract. So the best route, ecologically, faces the most formidable barriers.
And at the end, we had political problems that were so severe they sank us. Mayor Giuliani withdrew his support for the project at a critical time. That was the crushing blow for the project
Q: What lessons did you take away from the experience?
A: Many, but I'll mention two. First, we need to reform the regulatory structure so that it encourages sustainable development. A lot of the operation of the paper industry is dependent on exemptions from environmental laws, below market timber prices, and export policies that encourage use of virgin paper pulp. The regulatory structure should instead encourage sustainable projects. Right now, a project like ours faces the same barriers as a destructive one. That has to change. So, for example, I think we need "sustainability districts" in our cities, modeled after empowerment zones -- places where we offer stronger incentives for brownfield remediation and reusing sewage water, and where we can offer faster-track permitting and so on. Right now we're going in the wrong direction.
Second, I think environmentalists need to develop and exert influence over industry by becoming more influential in investment banking, and by creating sustainable projects of our own, rather than relying on industry to change its values. That would give us the ability to shape projects in environmentally friendly ways.
Q: What's next for you?
A: I'm still focusing a lot of energy on the paper industry, because it's among the most ecologically destructive industries. It's the single largest consumer of fresh water, and the largest polluter of lakes and rivers. It's the third largest producer of greenhouse gases, and accounts for 42 percent of industrial logging. So I'm working on making it harder to destroy endangered forests for papermaking, specifically in the southeastern United States, and in Canada, and, at the same time, I'm working on making it easier to build recycling plants in urban areas.
Q: And what should individuals do to help encourage recycling, and to make their paper consumption as gentle on the environment as possible?
A: Well, Americans consume three times the amount of paper that Europeans do, and vastly more than citizens in developing countries. We can cut our paper consumption by double-siding a lot more than we do. Of course, we should absolutely recycle our paper. And we should support recycling by buying recycled paper. Specifically, we should buy paper that's made with at least 30 percent post-consumer recycled content, and made without chlorine. For example, the bathroom tissue we buy should have a very high level of post-consumer content. By the way, the "post-consumer" part is very important, and you have to inspect labels carefully to be sure. If a label says the paper is "recycled," but doesn't specify that it's "post-consumer," then you're probably not keeping much out of landfills at all by buying it. Looking for the "post-consumer" label helps support and reward the billions of dollars in infrastructure investments made by local governments to collect the paper that has been used by consumers and that would otherwise be sent to costly and dangerous landfills or incinerators. That's not the case with paper that's not marked "post-consumer." It takes a little more effort to look for that label, but the environment deserves as much.
Allen Hershkowitz's Bronx Ecology: Blueprint for a New Environmentalism is available in hardback at bookstores and online. It can be ordered at Amazon.com.
Photo: Scott Mullin
last revised 6.18.03