Plenary Session Debate with Brenda Platt, Jerry Powell, and J. Winston Porter
National Recycling Congress Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, September 18, 1996
Remarks by Brenda Platt Director of Materials Recovery Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Washington, DC
Fifteen to twenty years ago, many solid waste planners thought that 10 percent recycling was the limit. In the late 1980s this perceived limit was upped to 25 percent. Now we’re up to 25 percent or even 27 percent (depending on whether you read Franklin or BioCycle). A dozen states are recovering 30 percent or more of their municipal solid wastes. They’re doing this through source reduction, reuse, recycling, and composting. Florida’s at 40 percent. Minnesota’s at 44 percent. New Jersey was at 42 percent in 1994. Dozens if not hundreds of communities have reached 50 percent levels. These record-setters are urban cities, rural areas, and suburban neighborhoods. Seattle is very close to 50 percent as is the Twin Cities region. Takoma Park, Maryland, Loveland, Colorado, and Madison, Wisconsin, are all small cities diverting more than half of their residential waste from disposal.
Have these programs matured? Are they approaching their practical limit? Should states with recycling goals of 40 percent or higher abandon them because they’re “so futile” as Dr. J. Winston Porter would have us believe? Is there a point at which there’s no payback for an increased recovery rate?
The answer to all of these questions is no. No. No. No. No.
The number of curbside programs may not be climbing as rapidly as the early 1990s, but we’re targeting more materials and expanding the reuse, recycling, and composting infrastructure.
In several editorials during the last few years, one reason Dr. Porter claims that we can’t reach 40 to 50 percent recovery levels is “about one-fourth of garbage and trash is made up of inherently nonrecyclable items such as kitty litter, dirt, food scraps, and worn-out toasters.”
- I try to keep dirt in my garden.
- Kitty litter is being made from recycled paper and other cellulosic material and can be composted along with sewage.
- There’s nothing inherently nonrecyclable about food scraps and worn-out toasters.
Porter obviously missed the May 1996 issue of BioCycle, which featured food service composting. For example, one project mentioned was a Tennessee prison that recently initiated a recycling and composting program, including food scraps. The prison is now diverting 77 percent of its waste from disposal.
I compost all my food scraps. This year, my finished compost helped me grow 2 pound tomatoes.
Food waste and organics are BLACK GOLD.
Worn-out toasters-now, that’s a good one. I just spent nine months documenting model reuse operations and strategies and I can tell you that we need to and can stop the flow of reusable and repairable items going to landfills.
Textiles, wood pallets, durables (appliances, electronics, furniture, luggage, toys, etc.) represent more than one fifth of our waste stream-one fifth! All of these materials represent potentially reusable items.
St. Paul, Minnesota; Chatham County, North Carolina; and Calaveres County, California have all integrated reusable household items into their recovery programs. And they’ve done so at no or minimal cost.
In the 80s, we focused on newsprint, glass, cans.
In the early 90s, we focused on yard waste, mixed paper, office paper, and plastics.
Where do we go from here?
In the late 90s, food scraps, textiles, durables, construction and demolition debris, and wood waste must be our focus.
We must also focus on more repair.
Let’s look at electronics, which are becoming obsolete at a frightening pace. Computer reuse is growing rapidly. I’ve identified more than 100 computer reuse/recycling operations-many, if not most, starting in the 1990s.
Towards the closing of his NY Times magazine article, “Recycling is Garbage,” John Tierney asked, “Why force the Bridges Elementary School [a public school in Manhattan] to spend money on a recycling program when it still doesn’t have a computer in the science classroom?”
The irony in this question is that reuse and recycling is the number one way inner-city schools are receiving computers.
Nonprofits, disadvantaged individuals, schools are the main beneficiaries of donated computers from reuse operations.
Now, because Porter erroneously regards 25 percent of the waste stream as nonrecyclable-food scraps and durables such as toasters-he maintains that in order to reach a 50 percent rate, we would have to recycle about three quarters of recyclable items. Something he thinks is too difficult, too expensive, and too inconvenient. These all sound like good excuses for a closed mind.
He loves to point to aluminum cans to try to prove his point. Only 65 percent are recycled he says and look how well established the aluminum recycling infrastructure is-most other items will not come near this rate.
We don’t NEED a massive investment to get to higher recycling levels. Landfills and incinerators need massive investments. Recycling requires a restructuring of moneys we are already spending on disposal.
It’s a myth that solid waste budgets are fixed costs. Labor can be reassigned, trucks are replaced every 5 years or so. Take a Texas example, Plano, Texas, where landfill tip fees are low at about $20 per ton. Plano added recycling and composting with no increase in its solid waste budget. It did this by restructuring its trash routes.
Many cities have integrated recycling with no increase in solid waste costs. They’ve transferred so-called fixed disposal costs into recycling and composting costs.
The question is not: Can we economically justify targeting more recyclables? Of course, the answer is yes.
The open mind would inquire: Who’s already recovering high portions of their waste stream cost-effectively? How are they doing it? What can we learn from them? How could they do better? What policies and strategies do we need to replicate these successes nationwide? How can we strive for ultimately zero waste?
That should be our ideal, our vision. Yes, zero waste.
Recycling works because citizens have changed the rules. They can take credit for beginning to make the price of disposal equal to its cost. Some recycling naysayers don’t like this because they believe that citizens should not be able to change the rules of the marketplace, even though, of course, this is a democracy.
Gifford, brace yourself. [Gifford Stack, session moderator who is head of the National Soft Drink Association]
Bottle bills are a prime example of how citizens have changed the rules. Recycling rates are above 80 percent for containers in bottle bill states. In fact, if the ten state bottle bills were repealed tomorrow, national recycling levels for aluminum, glass, plastics would decrease significantly.
We aren’t even close to reaching maximum capture rates. There may be 7,000 curbside programs, but plenty of households are under served-low-income communities, public housing projects, rural areas.
The National Recycling Coalition’s Recycling to Build Community Project, now starting its second year, is directly addressing this need. Dozens of VISTAs in eleven states will be building recycling capacity in low-income communities. These select projects will be models for others to replicate.
If we want high rates in the future, we will need to:
- serve more people,
- improve the reuse, recycling, and composting infrastructure, and
- pass policies to build this infrastructure.
And we’d better pay better attention to the solid waste hierarchy-reduce, reuse, recycle, compost. As Einstein once said, the smart person solves a problem, but the genius avoids it.
The Source Reduction Forum is one of NRC’s best projects. If you don’t know about this project, please visit the NRC booth and find out about it. Thank you EPA for supporting it.
We cannot maximize materials recovery and move toward zero waste without source reducing unnecessary packaging and eliminating disposable products.
We need to redesign the waste stream. Yes, it’s true we’ve source-reduced packaging by lightweighting containers, but we cannot stop there, and we need to WALK OUR TALK. NRC policy should be no disposable eating and drinking utensils at NRC functions.
When we reduce, reuse, recycle, and compost, we can give rise to new green industries. This is very important.
In trashing recycling, John Tierney stated in his article that landfills are “a prudent environmental strategy and provide jobs for rural communities.” On both counts, he couldn’t be more wrong.
1. Even new Subtitle D landfills will produce toxic leachate that will eventually contaminate groundwater. We have to stop accepting the myth that landfills are environmentally sound.
2. Reuse, recycling, and composting create many more jobs than landfill disposal or incineration.
Just processing recyclables-sorting, baling, etc. – sustains ten times more jobs on a per-ton basis than landfilling. However, it is making new products from the old that offers the greatest economic pay-off in the recycling loop. New recycling-based manufacturers create 25 times the number of jobs as landfilling. Some reuse operations employ 200 jobs for every one job at a disposal facility.
So you see Dr. Porter, we do need to go after the materials you would have us put in landfills and incinerators. You would have us eliminate the opportunity for these jobs and profits.
In a 1990 editorial, Dr. Porter wrote, “To aim for unrealistic recycling rates will not only discourage the public but may lead to a fool’s paradise where needed landfills and waste-to-energy facilities are sacrificed on the altar of pie-in-the-sky recycling goals.”
It’s exactly the opposite.
We need more recycling because it saves cities, counties, and businesses money and it sets the table for economic growth. And here’s my main point.
Recycling allows the perfect symmetry between the private and public sectors.
Let me explain this using a baseball analogy. After all, we are in the downtown of a great baseball city.
I’m the lead-off hitter for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s softball team. I’m real fast and I hit the ball sharply and I get on base (well, at least most of the time). Everyone who knows inside baseball knows that the lead-off hitter and the number two hitter set the table (meaning get on base) for the heart of the batting order to clean up and knock in those runs.
By cities, counties, and citizens in the public sector doing their separations for reuse, recycling, and composting, we set the table for the private sector to add value, add jobs, adds skills, and increase the tax base, and multiplier impacts.
That is why we need source reduction, reuse, recycling, and composting-to strive for 100% recovery rates or as we say in the Grassroots Recycling Network, zero waste or pretty damn close.