By George Stubbs
There have been recent media stories suggesting that recycling is a waste of time and energy, or is at the very least an idea that has outlived its usefulness.
To be sure, recycling is a segment of the waste management industry that is under stress. But these media reports only capture bits and pieces of the story, and potentially do a disservice by suggesting that recycling is merely a “feel good” exercise that compounds our problems.
One of those media stories was a report in late February on CNN. The piece opened with some disturbing anecdotes about the consequences of recycling’s current dynamics, such as low commodity prices and China’s purity standards (which have locked out imports of recyclables, or as the recycling industry refers to them, secondary materials). These conditions have led to cities like Philadelphia paying for recycling services rather than being paid for the secondary materials collected.
The news anchor then turned to an “expert”—Trevor Zink, assistant professor of management at Loyola Marymount University—who poured cold water on recycling using some shoddy logic. He noted first that recycling—the process of collecting and reprocessing secondary materials like glass, paper, aluminum, and plastic—is not entirely environmentally benign. Of course it isn’t—no commercial or industrial process is. Who thinks otherwise? To put a finer point on it, Zink provided no comparisons with the processes involved in making products from virgin materials.
He went on to flatter himself as an environmentalist, sanctimoniously declaring that he doesn’t recycle. The reason why was a good example of reductionist, either/or, all-or-nothing thinking that gets us nowhere. He claimed that the availability of recycling encourages us to keep consuming (possibly true, but no evidence provided). In essence, he reasons, because recycling has not been a silver-bullet solution to the problem of our hyper-consumerism, it is part of the problem.
There are no single silver bullets. There are strategies for solving problems that encompass combinations of necessary measures that aren’t by themselves sufficient. Should we address our hyper-consumerism? Of course. Should we stop recycling because we consume too much? Of course not, any more than we should ditch energy efficiency even though improving miles per gallon (mpg) in motor vehicles or reducing the electricity consumption in appliances has, at times, led to a “rebound effect”: People tend to drive more and plug in more stuff as the energy costs fall (thanks to greater efficiency).
Should we be doing a better job of selling the virtues of recycling? Yes indeed. We need to defend recycling as one among several measures for addressing the fact that we are drawing down our supply of natural resources on the front end and running out of space to dispose of end-of-life products on the back end. We need to build a circular economy, and recycling is an essential part of the solution, even if it isn’t the whole solution.
Another part of the solution is something that, unfortunately, will be the true heavy lift—convincing people to buy less stuff (and buy stuff with less packaging). This was one of the take-aways of a recent article in The Atlantic that has garnered a good deal of attention. The article—whose title ominously asks, “Is This the End of Recycling?”—rightly notes that many U.S. cities and towns want to do the right thing, but they can’t afford it in the current economic climate. Waste management companies are now charging for recycling services because they have no more room to store recyclables, which are piling up because they can no longer export them to China, thanks to that country’s stringent contamination standards.
The rarely told part of the story, of course, is that these companies have had limited domestic options for sending secondary materials for reprocessing. There’s a lot of China bashing without a description of the conditions that led to our dependence on China in the first place.
To a large extent, China’s demand for our recyclables propped up the U.S. recycling industry for many years until the enactment of the purity standards–the so-called China National Sword policy. There are some nuances to the story, however–nuances that media reports on recycling often overlook in their bashing of China and the U.S. recycling industry, and that help make the case for continued recycling.
For example, U.S. recyclers do not and did not send cardboard and #1, #2, and #5 plastic containers to China, as there are good domestic markets for those materials. The same is true of metal cans, especially aluminum.
Glass has always been managed domestically, but for New England, the available re-processing capacity is limited (there are hopeful signs–see below). In addition, finding markets for paper and mixed plastics–#3, #4, and #7–is challenging. (For those who are wondering, #6 plastic is polystyrene, which is hard to recycle as well.)
All plastic film, including plastic grocery bags, presents a significant problem for our domestic recycling facilities. According to a recycling expert at the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP), this is not a new problem, but there was no pushback on communities by recycling companies when China and other entities were not pushing back on the recyclers. In any case, the expert says, it remains very important for states, municipalities, and organizations like the Melrose Recycling Committee to communicate the importance of keeping contamination out of recycling–of “recycling smart,” in other words.
The upshot of this lengthy discussion about U.S.-China dynamics in recycling is a part of the story that many media reports are ignoring or glossing over: America, the champion of capitalism as the great engine of innovation, has largely dropped the ball on innovation in recycling, and China picked it up. Now China has broad capacity to re-process secondary materials. And not only that: the country’s growing middle class generates all or most of the secondary materials this re-processing infrastructure needs, so it no longer needs our discarded stuff.
China’s newly established, stringent contamination standards may thus be a kind of market protection strategy: A flood of foreign-sourced materials would reduce prices that domestic generators could demand for their recyclables. But so what? Whatever you may think of China’s moves on recycling, the answer isn’t to open that market back up, or to find other foreign markets. The answer is to innovate at home.
There is some sign that action to improve domestic reprocessing capacity is taking place, including actions that should help New England. Last June, Pace Glass began construction on what the company says will be the largest glass recycling facility in the world. The 250,000-square-foot plant, located in North Andover Township, New Jersey, will process recycled glass and deliver the cullet product to glass makers in New York, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts. The operation will employ about 80 people at the plant, along with 60 drivers.
Also, ND Paper announced last October that it will invest $300 million in the addition of recycled-pulp production lines at its recently acquired virgin paper mills in Biron, Wisconsin, and Rumford, Maine. Incidentally, ND Paper is the U.S. subsidiary of Chinese paper giant Nine Dragons. So it seems China will once again be helping the U.S. recycling industry—this time, here at home.
One important note–and reiterating a point made earlier: even if we do revive a robust domestic re-processing industry, we will still have to reduce the contamination of the recyclables stream. Our businesses are just as inconvenienced by contamination as the Chinese businesses.
Responding to the issues raised in the Atlantic article, the MassDEP Public Affairs Office put the situation quite well: “We are in a down market—yes. Probably the worst in the past 20 years. But recycling is a commodity and has always been susceptible to market fluctuations. If one looked at the costs of recycling over time, say the past 10 years, you will see savings over disposal costs. The key is not to panic with responses that can have negative long-term impacts.” MassDEP added, “As important as recycling is to a cost-effective solid waste management system, one should not ignore the additional environmental and public health benefits of reducing solid waste disposal.”
Which brings us back to the central point of the Atlantic article: We need to consume less. As the article notes, in 2015 (the most recent year for which EPA data is available), we Americans generated 262.4 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSW), which represented a 4.5 percent increase over 2010 and a 60 percent increase over 1985. We consume massively and toss our stuff at the least sign of blemish or dysfunction. An “out of sight, out of mind” mentality still prevails. The cost will be reflected not only in rising prices for dwindling landfill space, but also in damage to the environment and public health, as organic waste in landfills breaks down into methane—a more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide—and as toxic chemicals are released from incinerators and landfills into the air, water, and land.
We live in a market-oriented society, in which every industry experiences ups and downs. The recycling industry is no different. It is in a down cycle now, but there is hope that it will come back. Market societies also count on innovators to keep industries humming, and again, the recycling industry is no different. Innovation in recycling and re-processing will be absolutely necessary to deal with the wastes that are already filling our landfills and fouling our land, our waterways, and our oceans, and to deal with the waste that will continue to be generated, even if we are making great strides on consuming less. But we must not forget that conservation side to the coin—the imperative to use less. Recycling only encourages us to consume more if we fail to understand the whole story, and all of the consequences of our actions.