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The New Recycling Movement: Part 2. Recycling as Necessary But Not Sufficient for a Sustainable Industrial Economy

| Written by ILSR Admin | No Comments | Updated on Oct 1, 2003 The content that follows was originally published on the Institute for Local Self-Reliance website at https://ilsr.org/the-new-recycling-movement-part-2-recycling-as-necessary-but-not-sufficient-for-a-sustainable-industrial-economy/
Also See Part 1. Recycling Changes to Meet New Challenges

Second of two articles on the New Recycling Movement

I. Recycling Essential for Sustainability

Recycling, composting and waste reduction have been a basic precept of sustainability . It is essential for a sustainable industrial economy. “Recycling is the common denominator of all environmental activity,” says Rick Anthony, the nation’s foremost recycling expert and co-founder of the California Resource Recovery Association, the National Recycling Coalition and the Grass Roots Recycling Network. “It is a determining factor in whether you are an environmentalist or not.” Recycling impacts all aspects of the environmental movement and it is a practical, daily ritual that reinforces environmental values and commitment. For an effort of 2 minutes per week per household, Americans demonstrate their concerns for the environment. In turn recycling makes people feel good about themselves as they reduce the burden on the earth’s resources, lower costs and enhance their local economy. More people recycle regularly than vote regularly.

Recycling is a core principle of sustainability because it performs so much of the agenda of sustainability. It poses long-term solutions to problems not quick fixes that turn out to be costly and counter-productive. It eliminates problems instead of perpetuating them. It fosters cooperation among government agencies, community organizations, schools and local private haulers, processors and manufacturers. Recycling also allows for production and consumption without depleting natural resources and energy, alleviates pressures on global warming and the devastating impacts of rapid climate change, and can reduce the flow of toxic substances into all of our natural systems, air, water and soils, as well as our food and bodies.[1] Through composting and vermi-composting, it returns organic nutrients, thus restoring natural balances that are disrupted by continuous extraction of natural resources from the earth.

Recycling decentralizes the economy. Manufacturing plants that use recycled materials require less capital to build and operate than virgin materials manufacturers. Far less energy is used as compared to the use of virgin resources in manufacturing. Recycling based manufacturers can be close to their sources of materials to reduce transportation costs. Each level of collection, processing, manufacturing and consumption means jobs, skills, small businesses, profits. These, in turn, add to the local and regional tax base and recycling of dollars.

Recycling has dramatic indirect impacts on the local economy. Businesses need support functions such as accounting, banking, office supplies, catering and security.[2] Recycling also helps cities, counties and regions escape the grip of waste monopolies. When these monopolies are in control of local or regional markets for collection, transfer and disposal of waste they most often artificially boost prices. Serious recycling programs have been the escape valve for jurisdictions which have actually driven down the cost of landfill by implementing alternative publicly or community owned collection, processing, transfer and landfill facilities.

Finally, recycling parallels the entrepreneurial optimism of the sustainable development movement. Unlike other aspects of the environmental movement, sustainable development calls for massive new investment in infrastructure, raw materials aggregation, processing, manufacturing technology and the financing mechanisms for these investments. Recyclers and sustainability activists are not anti-business movements but are for new approaches to business and industry.

These credentials are the basis for the recycling movement to reach out o the sustainable development movement. National economist and philosopher Leopold Kohr famously pointed out that “some problems cannot be solved at their own level”. The timing for reaching beyond traditional recycling activism is critical because, it is apparent, recycling cannot do everything on its own. The recycling movement, ever practical, realizes that it cannot survive indefinitely, despite its popularity, if its focus remains on solid waste management. Too many decisions made outside the sector currently determine the recycling movements parameters. Recyclers are asked to respond and solve problems at the drop of a hat because a corporate committee decides to sell their beer in a bottle with two or three different plastic resins. Or to expand the markets for compost while chemical companies pour dangerous chemicals into their lawn and gardening products. Imagine a bathtub overflowing with the tap fully opened. Recycler are asked to mop up the floor. Yet they know that the first step is to close the tap. Albert Einstein noted that a smart person solves problems, but that a genius avoids problems. Recyclers are very smart, yet they strive to be geniuses.

II. Recycling Not Sufficient for Sustainability

Recycling has prospered before it was economically viable because mission driven citizens through elected officials, changed the rules of solid waste management. This array of new rules — presented in Part One of this article — changed the signals to investors and entrepreneurs that the market favored recycling. Therefore, a much broader investment is needed in transportation, agriculture, energy and manufacturing sectors in order for recycling to reach its goal — shared with sustainable development — of Zero Waste.

Since 1995 the recycling movement has changed dramatically while preserving its traditional structure of state recycling associations, municipal recycling, composting and source reduction activities. It has broadened its scope of concern to beyond municipal solid waste to consider upstream and downstream impacts of the waste sector and how changes in the industrial productive system must change if sustainability is to be realized. Gary Liss, former executive director of the California Resource Recovery Association (CRRA) and former president of the National Recycling Coalition, traces these developments through the successive Recycling Agendas developed by the CRRA in the 1990’s which emerged as national policy issues soon thereafter. He believes that a summit should be held with recycling and sustainable development advocates to clarify the roles that private progressive firms, local governments and mission driven organizations should play in achieving Zero Waste and a sustainable economy. [3]The movement widened its perspectives through the lens of Zero Waste thus moving beyond solid waste management and toward sustainability. As David Wood, executive director of the Grass Roots Recycling Network remarked, “If you are not for Zero Waste, how much waste are you for?”

The new scope altered the structure and strategies of the recycling movement as we have seen in Part One of this article.

A number of questions arise: Can the recycling movement and the sustainability movement grow together? Which sustainable development movement are we talking about? Are we talking about the sustainability movement presented in recent books, articles and conferences, a movement dominated by CEOs and corporate good will and enlightened self-interest; or, is it the community sustainable development movement which favors changing rules that require sustainable behavior for all participants in the economy?

III. History of an Idea

The notion of a sustainable, or steady state, industrial economy began at the very dawn of the industrial era in the late 18th Century and continues to this day. L’Ange, Robert Owen, Malthus, Engels, John Stuart Mill, Schumpeter, and in our own time Paul Goodman, Kenneth Boulding and Herman Daly have debated whether or not such a system could exist.

Can industrialism reach an equilibrium between its enormous productive and wealth creating capacity and the devastating impacts it has on ecological and social systems? Can a free market economy survive if nature is not assumed to be a vast free storehouse for raw materials and sink for its waste? [4] Can such a system survive if vast numbers of workers are paid a living wage in both Southern Tier and Western economies?

These questions will remain priority issues of concern for as long as the industrial system continues to devalue, as Frederich Engels succinctly phrased it, “trees and children”. That is, can the free market form of industrialization survive if the system continues to exclude the value of people and nature — the system’s morale failure; and, if it fails to reap the benefits of these two most productive investment opportunities — the system’s failure in efficiency of production?

For whatever progress has been won by the great, great grandchildren of the initial work force of Western industrialization, the current system still requires a massive source of workers at subsistence wages throughout the world. It also continues to apply constant pressure against the necessities of nature to renew itself. Throughout the world today workers who provide food, goods and services live at or below the poverty line. In the US the minimum wage is below the poverty line for a family. Worse yet, US workers compete with workers who do the same work at a fraction of the US minimum wage, in countries where there is a significant “competitive advantage” for manufacturers to locate labor intensive operations.

Former economic theory held that a “comparative advantage” would determine investment location; that is, in parts of the world that had a natural advantage for production. The new concept of “competitive advantage” is a depredation of the former theory. Competitive advantage means plant location is based on which country is able to squeeze the most out of its labor force and environment. Thus firms hop around from Nicaragua to Mexico to Guam, to Vietnam, to India to China looking for the “best” deals on labor and environmental controls. International finance institutions complement this investment in countries that have gone through a “structural adjustment” to accommodate traditional industrialism. William Greider, addressing the narrow value system of traditional industrialism, points out, “With few important exceptions, the agents of capital operate with dedicated blindness to capital’s collateral consequences, an indifference to the future of society even as they search for the future’s return”.[5]

The term sustainable development entered the environmental movement in the mid 1980’s. Sustainable development marked the third phase of the US environmental movement.[6] The first phase of the US environmental movement began 150 years ago with a focus on wilderness preservation. The network of national parks is its legacy. The second phase emerged in the mid 1960’s with the publication and impact of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which alerted the public to the immediate and long term dangers of living with chemicals that are harmful to human health. Environmental Impact Statements, New Source Performance Standards and Best Available Control Technologies embodied in national environmental protection laws are our heritage from this phase of the environmental movement.

The third phase of the movement, sustainability, began in the mid 1980’s by broadening the focus once again. From targeting materials harmful to people it focused on materials harmful to nature. Specifically, does the environment have the carrying capacity, or cleansing capacity, to absorb the flood of toxic material released by industrial activities? Or is nature to be overcome by these byproducts, thus risking ecological and human sustainability? Sustainability thus addresses inter-generational equity by insisting that environmentalism take into account the needs of future generations as we make investment decisions.

In the early 1990’s the fourth phase of the environmental movement, environmental justice, was appended to the concept of sustainability. Environmental justice focuses on horizontal, or intra-generational equity among existing generations. This phase is also characterized by intense concern for international equity among richer and poorer nations. Environmental justice activists fight against the location of waste disposal sites and pollution-laden production in poor and minority communities within the US and in poor Southern Tier countries. They also fight for worker rights, better living conditions, and higher wages in countries where many industrial firms assume the competitive advantage to be manipulated by authoritarian governments.

Initially, the sustainable development movement was introduced and publicized by the Bruntland Commission, comprised of senior government officials and corporate CEOs. Hundreds of conferences were held following this inauguration, including the Rio De Janeiro Conference in 1992 and its follow-up conference in Louisville, KY in 1995. These conferences focused attention and activity at convincing CEOs of large corporation to take the natural environment into account as they make their business decisions. To this day, the prevailing conventional wisdom of the traditional sustainable development movement is that corporations are the only engines of progressive change, and that they can attain sustainable industrial development. Benevolent CEO’s are thought to be the driving force of this change.

However, this vision and analysis ignores the role of citizen and environmental organizations, worker organizations, local governments and small businesses. It challenges the logic of even those with the greatest tolerance for ambiguity. How can we accept such corporations as Monsanto and Shell Oil, so frequently held up of as models of companies that are motivated by sustainable development? Monsanto has unilaterally decided to use genetically engineered seeds, and through its monopoly over seed distribution, it threatens global agriculture by eliminating crop diversity ; thus making the world’s food production sector susceptible to widespread damage. Most recently Monsanto sued, and won, a case against a Canadian farmer whose crops were contaminated by Monsanto genetically modified seeds. When the farmer gathered crops and used seed from his own property, he was held liable for using Monsanto genetically modified seeds illegally. Shell Oil condones political violence against environmental leaders and villagers who get in their path to cheap oil production through the elimination of environmental controls and human rights. These corporations and other “models” of sustainable industry have their assets invested in, and glean their profits from non-sustainable practices.

IV. Sustainable Communities

By the early 1990’s reaction against this limited concept of corporate-dominated sustainability led to a new component of the sustainable development movement; namely community sustainability. Sustainable communities focused on local concerns. Scale and ownership of business and industry became important criteria of sustainability. Thousands of communities adopted new ways of thinking and acting by placing responsibility and authority in the hands of local government and citizens. Cumulative change at the local level was seen as the best pathway to national and global sustainability. This is not to say that independent efforts by corporations and independent networks are not progressive, indeed they are. But they are exceptions, not the rule. Community sustainability requires that this behavior become the hard rules for new economic priorities and a new social contract. Community sustainability holds that good will is not enough. That voluntarism will not result in the comprehensive change needed to reach a sustainable industrial society.

The sustainable communities movement has presented specific rule changes that make sustainable develop not a choice or a feel good activity, but a basic requirement of doing business. Recently, Eastern states won a long drawn out court battle to force power utilities in the Mid-West to control emissions of gases and particulates that are destroying natural environments and are harmful to their citizens. Community sustainability proposes that these emissions should never have been allowed in the first place. The community sustainability movement presents a different vision of sustainability than that presented by corporate sustainability advocates.

These new rules for sustainable development are at the heart of the alliance between the recycling movement and the community sustainability movement. “Rules make us and we make the rules”, states David Morris of ILSR. [7] New rules enacted around the US demonstrate that the community sustainability movement has been as creative and forceful as the recycling movement.

Both movements thrive or wither based upon new rules which make recycling and community sustainable development favored in the market place. Both need a “fair market” to survive not a “free market”, in which large corporations always win out over the interests of citizens, communities and independent businesses. Both require decision-making authority by those who must live with the consequences of the decisions.

Private property is invaluable but not sacrosanct as noted by President T. Roosevelt, our most environmentally conscious president. He sought to preserve the market economy by balancing private and public interests. In 1910 he declared, “The man who wrongly holds that every human right is secondary to his profit must now give way to the advocate of human welfare, who rightly maintains that every man holds his property subject to the general right of the community to regulate its use to whatever degree the public welfare may require.”

In the last few years thousands of communities adopted new ways of thinking about and solving problems by reclaiming authority and responsibility in the hands of citizens, local and state government, and locally owned businesses. Models for asserting local control were readily available. In Sacramento, CA, the Municipal Utility District, SMUD, was created as a residents owned energy utility. Citizens voted to shut down their nuclear power plant and invest in conservation and energy efficiency. Lessons from Sacramento are being shared with other cities and cooperatively owned utilities. Open space was addressed in Portland, OR. where an urban growth boundary has been imposed. Citizens in Portland, OR also forced the city to shut down a freeway and implement one of the most effective mass transit systems in the US. The city of Santa Monica, CA has become an international leader and role model for municipal sustainability; pioneering in a number of integrated programs.[8]

The Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE) is one of many business coalitions throughout the US that assists local owners of restaurants, retailers, clothing designers and manufacturers. The International Agriculture and Trade Project (IATP) has established local paper product distribution within Minnesota. The Used Building Materials Association (UBMA) provides assistance to new deconstruction enterprises in bidding, estimating, product management, inventory controls, tools, safety procedures and marketing. [9]

A sustainable community requires that its workers earn more than subsistence wages and benefits. The city of Baltimore was the first of now several cities to enact “living wage” laws, which require any city contractor to pay a decent wage to their employees. Other coalitions have extended this notion by focusing on local government economic development subsidies to private corporations. The Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy has forced developers to provide community based day care centers, grocery stores, health clinics and decent job standards. Seventy-five percent of 2,000 office and retail jobs expected from one development must be living wage jobs. The East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy won a ballot initiative in March 2002 that established wage and job standards for workers hired in the expansion of the port and airport of Oakland with $1.9 billion of public dollars. The criteria for public subsidies for private firms is being challenged by sustainable community organizations throughout the country.

In Minnesota, citizens voted to introduce a home grown agriculture network that produces over 10% of the state’s liquid fuel requirements; reducing the demand for imported fossil fuels and enhancing the value of crops grown by Minnesota farmers. As part of a settlement over storage of waste from nuclear power plants, the state is committed to a network of wind energy facilities that will also reduce the need for imported energy. Vermont citizen action led to a law that requires a citizen board review of major economic development projects. This allows the size of a store and its impact on the existing local economy to be a decision making factor. Enormous “big box” stores have been declared unacceptable based on these criteria. Communities are ready to protect themselves. A new network of “home town advantage” activists, including elected officials, small businesses and citizens has risen to impose restrictions on big box stores that undermine local “place based” businesses that are tied to the local economy through ownership, civic culture and home town pride. [10] A recent economic impact analysis assessing the economic activity generated by local merchants relative to a chain merchant carrying comparable lines of goods underscores the importance of home town businesses. It found that for every $100 in consumer spending at one chain merchant store, a total of $13 stays within the local economy. The same amount spent with a local merchant yields more than three times the local economic impact. [11] ILSR has determined that for every dollar spent on energy generated locally, 85 cents of the dollar remains in the local economy. Only 15 cents of a dollar spent on imported energy stays in the local economy.

States and cities have taken action in the face of federal neglect of sustainable environmental policies. Massachusetts has banned construction and demolition debris from its landfills, thus providing ample stimulus for deconstruction enterprises to flourish. Maine has passed landmark ‘take back’ legislation requiring automobile manufacturers to pay for the collection and recycling of mercury switches from old cars. The courts have upheld this law, in the face of stiff industry resistance, declaring that such an imposition on industry is not a disruption of interstate commerce. This legislation is the first step towards a European style End of Life Directive to auto makers. Maine has become the first state in the US to establish a global warming initiative. Seattle has established a zero greenhouse emissions for its Seattle Electric Company. The program supports pollution offsets, building redesign and other incentives to complement new conservation and efficiency rules to enable the city to meet international green house gas requirements set at the Kyoto Protocol in 1998.

Thanks to a campaign by the Health Care Without Harm Network and the Healthy Building Network, Washington, Oregon and New Hampshire have established new rules (laws, policies and incentives) to reduce or eliminate dioxin. In late October 2003, Boston joined the cities of Seattle, San Francisco and Oakland in passing similar new rules. The Boston City Council unanimously passed a Dioxin Resolution calling for the use of the city’s purchasing power to eliminate products that create or release dioxin in manufacturing or incineration. Purchasing guidelines will favor materials that do not produce dioxin, the world’s worst toxin. The Dioxin Resolution is designed to protect firefighters and the general public.

V. Integrated Campaigns

The new recycling movement, through new coalitions and national and international networks, has made significant progress. Successful campaigns for example have been focused on hazardous chemicals in building materials and computers, anti-incineration, anti-clear cutting and protecting endangered forests. Zero Waste, with its corollaries Extended Producer Responsibility and Precautionary Principle, have evolved as a necessity for the success of the recycling movement. Cooperation, cross training, and merging of bottom up and top down strategies have been the hallmark of this transition to broaden the movement from its solid waste management base to include issues that are parallel to the community sustainability movement.

Will the rule changing approach that has sustained the recycling movement in one sector be applicable to transforming the entire industrial economy? The best chances for success is the continuing integration of the recycling movement with the sustainable communities movement. The two movements share the same values and understand the need for new rules for a sustainable industrial economy that will provide a viable future for citizens and the environment. These two movements can replace the current rules of industrial behavior which favor non-sustainable industrial activity and the collateral damage to people and nature that it entails.

The following list of proposed joint campaigns would further the integration and success of the recycling and community sustainability movements.

+ Brownfield program reserved for Zero Waste manufacturing facilities; to guarantee that sites are not polluted once again.

+ National disposal surcharge on all solid waste landfilled or incinerated; to increase the cost of disposal, increase the cost avoidance value of recycled materials and generate funds for investment in recycling industries.

+ Wage subsidies for Zero Waste industries to allow companies to train workers in new technologies and equipment.

+ Zero Waste low interest investment fund for individuals to invest in exchange for federal tax credits while creating capital for recycling industries.

+ Zero Waste industrial parks for urban and rural areas to decentralize the capacity for reusing materials and reduce transportation costs.

+ Reusable products and packages; reuse is hundreds of times as energy and material efficient as recycling.

+ Urban agriculture to reduce packaging, increase food security, provide local end use for organic waste.

+ Mandatory deconstruction where feasible in order to create skilled jobs, reduce demand for virgin forest products, and reduce flow of materials to landfills.

+ Home Town Advantage investment fund to provide loans to locally owned place-based businesses in order to build and secure diverse local economies and avoid price gauging from oligopolistic distributors.

From the local level these and parallel campaigns need to be raised to national and international dimensions.

Also See: Part 1. Recycling Changes to Meet New Challenges

Neil Seldman is co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. He has been a manufacturer and university lecturer. He is widely known for leadership in the anti-incineration battles throughout the US and for integrating recycling and community economic development through joint venture enterprises linking private firms and community development organizations.


[1] See, Jeffrey Morris, “Pollution Prevention and Biodiversity Enhancing of Curbside Recycling”, Monthly UnEconomist, March/April, 2002, available on the internet at zerowaste.com.

[2] See, National Recycling Coalition, “U.S. Recycling Economic Information Study”, Washington, D.C., July 2001

[3] See CRRA Global Recycling Council, “What I Can Do to Work Towards Zero Waste”, presented at the 2003 CRRA Annual Conference, Ontario, CA.

[4] See, William Leiss, The Limits to Satisfaction, McGill University, Montreal, 1988.

[5] The Soul of Capitalism, Simon and Schuster, 2003.

[6] See, David Morris, “The Four Stages of Environmentalism”, in Utne Reader, 1992

[7] See New Rules page of ILSR’s web page, ILSR.ORG.

[8] See, Kevin McKown, “Sustainability the Goal in City”, Green Pages, Autumn 2003.

[9] See, Stacy Mitchell, “Independent Businesses, Unite!”, in In Business, July/August 2003.

[10] See, Stacey Mitchell, Interview in Multinational Monitor, October/November 2002, “New Rules for the New Localism: Favoring Communities, Deterring Corporate Chains”; and, Stacey Mitchell, The Home Town Advantage: How to Defend Main Street Against Chain Stores and Why It Matters, ILSR, Washington, DC, 2002.

[11] See, Civic Economics, Inc., on the Web go to CITIZEN-TIMES.COM., 19 MARCH 2003.