Neil Seldman: Letter in Response to Washington Post Recycling Article

Date: 4 Jul 2015 | posted in: Waste to Wealth | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Neil Seldman – Letter to Editor

Dear Editor,

The Washington Post’s feature “American recycling is stalling” (June 20), correctly points to problems caused by large single-stream recycling bins. But clarifications are needed.

Avoided costs: Cities do not make money from recycling. They reduce their overall costs of solid waste management because recycling costs less than managing garbage. Materials markets always fluctuate, but disposal costs only go up. DC did not make a profit from recycling. They received money from sales of materials, but these did not cover the cost of collection and transfer of materials. Garbage disposal and recycling both cost money. Recycling costs less when avoided costs are added to revenue.

Poor design: Cities also do not take full advantage of recycling. DC succumbed to the single-stream recycling and a well-run dual stream system, operated by a local company with over 20 workers, was put out of business. As a result the city is now spending about $1 million annually in hauling costs alone to truck recyclables to Elkridge, MD. Dual stream (keeping paper separate from mixed plastic, glass and metal) would also help the city get better participation because it is more instructive than single-stream recycling. A bottle bill would go a long way to recovering high quality glass to feed to regional glass manufacturers in Virginia while reducing contamination of recovered paper.

WMI complaints about the markets: This ignores the low quality of the product they produce by oversized machines run at over capacity. High garbage disposal costs are assured by concentrated ownership of processing plants, landfills and incinerators. Remember, WMI is in the business of collection and disposal and reluctantly added recycling due to citizen pressure but has never really been supportive of it. The company makes much more money landfilling than recycling.

US recycling has not stalled: The US recycling rate is closer to 48% than 34% when construction and demolition waste is counted. In addition to rapidly increasing recycling of C & D materials, electronic scrap and food waste are rapidly growing sectors. Many cities are increasing recycling levels to 50%-70% with plans to go higher.

Any city or county can reach high levels of recycling by using proven methods: monetary incentives, smart collection, use of the education system and developing local markets instead of looking to China. More than 50% of the waste stream can be recycled and marketed locally (construction & demolition, food discards, yard and storm debris). Lawrence, KS, and Austin, TX, have arranged for small scaled high-grade paper and cotton recycling mills to be built and create local markets as well as hundreds of good jobs.


Neil Seldman

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Neil Seldman

Neil Seldman, Ph.D, directs the Waste to Wealth Initiative. He specializes in helping cities and businesses recover increasing amounts of materials from the waste stream and add value to the local economy through new processing and manufacturing facilities. He is a co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.