Review: 40 Years of Curbside Recycling

Date: 11 Sep 2013 | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

A Review of 40 Years of Curbside Recycling: A Celebration of Our Culture’s Greatest Environmental Movement, Waste & Recycling News, Detroit, August 2013, 42 pages

By Neil Seldman, Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Washington, DC
(Neil Seldman is President of ILSR and a specialist in recycling and economic development. He works for cities and counties, community and environmental organizations, and small businesses.)

And a worthy celebration it is! Recyclers should be grateful that the editors and publishers of Waste & Recycling News (WRN) invested their time in preparing this retrospective. Despite some curious lapses in their recounting of the history of recycling, the essays and tables they present will significantly add to the growing literature of recycling for the next generation of Americans.

“No other environmental movement,” the report begins, “can come close to changing the way we think about garbage in our daily lives. None other can match recycling’s economic, cultural and ecological impact…on humanity’s greatest environmental idea.”

Oddly, WRN begins by incorrectly crediting the “hippies” of the 1960s for the recycling revolution. Nothing can be further from the truth, as readers soon find out when they delve into the text. Cliff Humphrey of Modesto Environmental Action, Penny Hansen of the EPA, and the children and grandchildren of 19th century immigrant scrap entrepreneurs hardly fit the image of hippie culture. To be sure, Cliff and Mary Humphrey’s mock funeral for a new car was hippie-like in its irreverence for materialism and counter-culture message. But these activists were no flash in the pan. They and thousands more followed up with years of hard work and political organizing.

Praise is duly noted for the “scrappies” who, out of necessity, built viable businesses in scrap metal and paper that kept recycling alive as it withered under the emerging post-World War II throwaway economy. Mayor Sam Yorty’s 1960 campaign to end curbside recycling in Los Angeles as a spoil of victory of World War II is duly noted as the harbinger of wastefulness and hubris. In Washington, DC, it was ABC Salvage that preserved markets for materials, and invested money and equipment in community-based drop-off centers—an important building block for the curbside recycling that was soon to follow. Hundreds of “scrappies” from across the country did the same. WRN estimates that 1 billion tons of raw materials derive from US recycling efforts since curbside was reintroduced in the early 1970s.

The retrospective covers individual and community accomplishments, the evolution of collection and processing equipment as curbside recycling reappeared, and the change in the economics of recycling during the mid-1980s emergence of a recycling culture. WRN correctly emphasizes the staying power of recycling through the 2008 recession and the current stagnant economy.

WRN also walks us through the latest recycling effort: the one bin, “dirty MRF” system being rolled out in Houston and other cities. Dirty refers to the fact that processing lines recover recyclables and compostables from mixed waste streams, thus reducing the quality of materials recovered. Recyclers also object to dirty MRFs: if people no longer sort their own garbage, efforts to educate them about the waste stream will be for naught, and previous behavior modification surrounding recycling will be lost. Dirty MRFs may also end up as feedstock for planned incinerators, as proponents in Houston and elsewhere anticipate.

Throughout WRN’s report, there are stories that reinforce lessons learned over the past 30 years, and that remind us of both the conventional and unconventional people and ideas that formed and continue to drive the movement to this day.

There are, however, significant omissions in the retrospective that deserve attention. The subtitle is misleading in that it separates the recycling movement from the prior emergence of a larger environmental movement. One could not have been possible without the other: Rachel Carson, Barry Commoner and other scientists prepared the groundwork for the general population’s acceptance of recycling by revealing the appalling state of the environment and the imminent dangers of current practices. These citizen scientists were the midwives of modern recycling. Their work led directly to the national consensus that allowed for 1965’s groundbreaking National Solid Waste Management Act, which marked the first time in a century that the federal government paid attention to garbage. New federal, state and local rules began to change quickly. Like the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, recyclers starting aiming for a Clean Land Act, as reflected in the now unfolding zero waste paradigm.

Despite WRN’s initial focus on the grassroots origin of the movement, there is little follow-up on grassroots activism. The l980 Fresno Recycling Congress is omitted in the timeline completely, as is the 1995 emergence of the Grass Roots Recycling Network, a critical development in reaction to the takeover of the National Recycling Coalition by industry consultants and corporations. It would have been helpful to describe the critical role of environmental educators in spreading recycling literacy in schools and in the public’s consciousness. Recycling education has been a vehicle for public knowledge about closely related issues of water, energy and air issues.

The report omits mention of transformative works that deserve attention include Brenda Platt’s 1990s EPA-supported case studies Beyond 25% Recycling, Beyond 40% Recycling and Cutting the Waste Stream in Half, Institute for Local Self-Reliance, and Tania Levy’s Garbage to Energy: The False Panacea, Santa Rosa (CA) Community Recycling Center.
Levy’s 1979 booklet launched the anti-incineration movement. Recyclers and ad hoc local groups eventually scuppered over 300 planned incinerators in virtually every major US city and county. WRN chooses to highlight the Mobro Garbage Barge incident as the source of vitality for the recycling movement in the mid l980s. It’s true that the daily images of Long Island garbage floating around the world on the nightly news—ultimately to be returned to NY—were indeed powerful. The threat of massive pollution and the high cost of incinerators in cities, however, were what really galvanized local actions and raised the recycling movement to the forefront of people’s imaginations as a viable alternative to incineration and, later, the parallel development of mega-landfills.

Surprisingly, WRN’s retrospective does not focus on how important citizen- and small business-led anti-incineration activism was to the recycling movement. The prospect of 1000 ton per day plus garbage incinerators led to a broad, locally based movement in opposition. Citizens learned that recycling was a viable alternative to incinerators but that to become the predominant way we handled garbage, we needed to change the rules.

My colleague Brenda Platt’s work appeared as a crucial antidote to industry and EPA periodic assertions in the 1970s that only 10% (later raised to 25%), of MSW could be recycled. Platt’s case studies changed the solid waste narrative by showing communities what other communities had already accomplished. Once people could see successful recycling in action, it became much easier to replace the “burn and bury” paradigm with the recycling and economic development paradigm. Today, hundreds of communities in the US are recovering over 50% of their discarded materials. Some have reached over 70% diversion, while striving for 90%. Recycling has, remarkably, continued to expand its hold on the public’s imagination and practice to this day.

The timeline of WRN’s report focuses mostly on the business side of the movement. Readers should supplement their understanding of the recycling movement by comparing WRN’s timeline with ILSR’s grassroots-oriented timeline.

Despite these omissions, the “40 Years” report is a most welcome addition to our history. It provides insights and context that are required if current and future generations are to understand and learn how grassroots democracy can work when decision-making remains in the hands of local government where organized citizens can change the rules.

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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.