In the past several months, journalists in major publications such as Forbes, the Huffington Post, the Washington Post, the New York Times and Mother Jones have concluded that recycling rates have stagnated. They tend to blame the recent downturn in materials prices. They’re half right. Recycling levels have stagnated in many cities and towns, largely in the South and Midwest, and the national average of 35 percent has not moved much in more than a decade.
But it is not economics that keeps recycling stagnant in parts of the country. Rather it is a stagnation of citizen activism. Where citizens remain active, recycling levels continue to rise to unprecedented levels. Even as markets for recycled materials fluctuate advanced recycling cities realize that avoided costs of replacement landfills and incinerators and an expanded economy more than compensate for temporary low market prices.
Since the advent of the modern recycling movement post Earth Day 1970 advocates have faced great odds. Not only did they have to persuade a skeptical public to embrace recycling before it was economically viable, but even more a skeptical and often downright hostile solid waste bureaucracy that abhorred the idea of having to rely on tens of thousands of households and small businesses changing their daily behavior rather than as they traditionally had, on a handful of large haulers and landfills and incinerators and expensive compacting trucks. They had to deal with Wall Street firms that embraced capital intensive waste handling strategies, large hauling and landfill companies that dominated market share, virgin material companies that did not want to compete with 40,000 local governments, federal government subsidies and several national environmental organizations that enthusiastically embraced the most capital intensive strategy of all—incineration— as a benign waste-to-energy solution. Recyclers often had to create a market for recycled materials and convince manufacturers to use them and retail stores to buy them. Continue reading