By George Stubbs
Since our previous “Defending Recycling” post, the wave of media hysteria about the “crisis” in the U.S. recycling industry has continued to crash. Most notably, the New York Times picked up the crisis narrative on March 17, in an article titled “As Costs Surge, Cities’ Recycling Becomes Refuse” (An on-line version was published a day earlier). The Boston Globe, which picks up many of the Times‘s stories (although the Times sold the Globe several years ago), subsequently published the article on March 18.
Prior to the publishing of the Times article, but subsequent to CNN and Atlantic pieces that we had taken to task in “Defending Recycling,” Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham weighed in with a splendid example of reductionist, either/or argument. Recycling “can’t fix what really ails us,” the column’s headline screams. Reducing what we purchase and then generate as waste is something we should do, she correctly points out, but in her final sentence, she claims that “unburying us is the way to lasting change.”
It’s the “the” that irks. This silver bullet thinking neglects the multifaceted nature of our waste problem and the fact that, though reduce we must, we have generated lots of stuff and will generate a lot more stuff, and we’re running out of places to responsibly put it. And many of us aren’t dealing with our waste responsibly, as the plastics-in-the-ocean problem so tragically demonstrates.
Recycling thus remains part of the solution to our unburying. We will need to take the paper, plastic, glass, and other materials we are generating as waste and do something with them that further embeds a circular economy.
Fortunately, a couple of recent articles have taken a more reflective and positive look at recycling, while recognizing that the industry faces challenges. In Naked Capitalism, a blog that aims to present critical thinking about financial and economic topics, CityLab Editorial Fellow Nicole Javorsky relates “How American recycling is changing now that China won’t take it.” (CityLab conducts research and publishes articles on how cities work and the challenges they face.)
Ms. Javorsky acknowledges that several municipalities have rolled back their recycling operations in the face of China’s National Sword policy, which established stringent contamination standards that have effectively blocked the import of U.S.-sourced secondary materials. She reports, however, that other municipalities have stepped up their recycling efforts, often in collaboration with non-profit recycling organizations. Many of these efforts focus on getting the contamination out of the recycling bins, as the Melrose Recycling Committee is trying to do here in Melrose.
Ms. Javorsky describes similar efforts in other jurisdictions, like Washington, D.C. and Montgomery County in Maryland. “China’s policy hasn’t led Montgomery County to stop recycling anything. It continues to generate revenues from all the materials it recycles,” Eileen Kao, chief of waste and recycling for the county’s Department of Environmental Protection, told Javorsky. The author concludes: “[T]here are strategies that local programs can use, either separately or in combination, to find their way back to health and continue recycling waste. China’s policy change may not represent the much-feared ‘end of recycling’ in the United States so much as an inflection point.”
In another article, published on March 26 in Resource Recycling magazine, reporter Colin Staub suggests that rumors about recycling’s twilight are belied by a number of new investments in secondary materials processing capacity. Recycling industry professionals, Mr. Staub writes, say they are seeing “a continuing commitment to recycling, still-functioning markets and investments in infrastructure.”
Waste Management, the waste industry’s largest hauler and operator of materials recovery facilities (MRFs), is particularly upbeat. That’s perhaps to be expected, but it can point to numbers. “We are seeing our municipal customers focus efforts on reducing contamination in their collection stream rather than eliminating their recycling programs altogether,” Susan Robinson, the company’s federal public affairs director, told Staub. “In fact, of our over 5,000 municipal contract customers, we have only identified two that have chosen to pause or stop their recycling programs to date.” (To read Waste Management’s full March 2019 recycling message, click on Fact Sheet Recycling and Marketing March 2019v2 (1)).
Then there’s the critical addition of new capacity for re-processing secondary materials. In “Defending Recycling I,” we cited ND Paper and Pace Glass as two recycling companies that are investing millions of dollars in new capacity for paper and glass, respectively. The Resource Recycling article mentions more. For example, Pratt Industries, which uses 100 percent recycled fiber in its corrugated packaging products, has built a new single-stream MRF in Atlanta. Pratt is also building a paper mill in Ohio that will process 425,000 tons of recovered fiber per year.
Waste Management says it spent $110 million in 2018 on recycling carts, collection vehicles, and facility upgrades. And in Chicago, the company is building a state-of-the-art MRF in Chicago. Staub cites more such developments in his article.
The criticisms of recycling take two forms. First, the industry as a market is in crisis mode and may not survive. We can see that this narrative is, to say the least, exaggerated and premature. Second, recycling has not solved our problems with hyper-consumption and waste generation, therefore it is part of the problem, and we should stop doing it. The logic here is elusive. We should reduce and reuse, to be sure, but we have generated lots of waste, will continue to generate lots of waste, and we’re running out of places to put it. “Reduce, reuse, and recycle” isn’t just a clever slogan. It’s a succinct statement of a necessary strategy for dealing with our waste generation issues.