The True Value of Recycling and the Waste Stream (Episode 2)

Welcome to the second episode of our Building Local Power podcast.

In this episode, Chris Mitchell, the director of our Community Broadband Networks initiative, interviews Neil Seldman, ILSR co-founder and senior staff member of the Waste to Wealth initiative about the hidden value in our waste stream and, specifically, some recent comments made by the CEO of Waste Management, Inc. disparaging the value of recycling.

“The recycling movement in the United States not only has created 60,000 companies, 1 million jobs, and delivers 200 million tons of raw material a year to industry and agriculture,” says Seldman. “It also produces citizen leaders and national leaders.” This engaging conversation between Neil and Chris gets to the heart of why the waste stream is such an important part to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s mission. By moving materials (such as organics or glass cullet) from landfills to composting arrays or glass reclamation facilities, we can increase the economic development of communities and reduce overall waste.

For more information on Neil’s work, check out his recent article: Eureka Recycling: Efficient, Cost Effective and Socially Beneficial Recycling.

If you missed the first episode of our podcast you can find that conversation here, also to see all of our episodes make sure to bookmark our Building Local Power Podcast Homepage.

Chris Mitchell: The recycling movement in the United States not only has created 60,000 companies, a million jobs, and delivers 200 million tons of raw material a year to industry and agriculture, it also produces citizen leaders and national leaders. Welcome back to the second episode of the Building Local Power podcast at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I’m Chris Mitchell. I’m the director of our community broadband networks program. Today I’m talking with Neil Seldman, a co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and a senior staff member of the Waste to Wealth program. Welcome to the show Neil.
Neil Seldman: Thanks Chris. It’s great to be here talking to you.
Chris Mitchell: Today we’re going to talk about some of the comments from one of the largest waste disposal companies, but I’d actually like to start be a little bit more broad and ask you just why do we care about the waste stream at all here at ILSR, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance?
Neil Seldman: Well there a couple of reasons. One, the waste stream flows through every city. It means resources are flowing through those cities and they’re not being tapped. On top of that cities are paying a great deal of money to have these materials disposed of in facilities, either incinerators or landfills, which continue to pollute and which continue to increase in cost. Since 1995 the cost of recycling has been lower than the cost of garbage disposal, whether it’s landfill or incineration.
The other reason is that solid waste management is a local area that is under the control of cities exclusively, cites and some counties. As a result of that citizens have an opportunity, the best opportunity in our Republican system, to engage with the local decision makers much more so than at the state and federal level. As a result of that since the early 1970s citizens have been organizing and in effect have gained control over the decision making process on solid waste management and forced cities to adopt recycling and expand [inaudible 00:02:22]. You have now cities in the United States, cities and counties that are over 50%. Many of these cities are aiming for 80 and 90%.
Chris Mitchell: Those all sound like really good reasons, but let’s turn to some specific comments about the recycling being uneconomic and the argument from the CEO of Waste Management.
Neil Seldman: Well Mr. Steiner offered comments to Waste Dive, which is an electronic newsletter, a trade journal in the waste management field, and he said three things that were very surprising. The first thing he said was that, “Top-down laws are not good for recycling.” This is completely a myth, because laws on recycling have been created at the local level by the grassroots. This has been happening since the 70s and it continues as citizens work with their cities to band Styrofoam, to ban plastic bags, and as well as to increase the levels of recycling.
Chris Mitchell: Now, when I hear “top-down” I’m usually thinking about rules that are coming out of Washington DC or someplace far away and not really from a local level, but here this person’s actually critiquing local rules and I think he’s just using the term “top-down” because he thinks it’s going to make people more motivated to oppose those rules.
Neil Seldman: Well, I think what you’re saying is true, but I also think that he may be misleading people on purpose. Many people have attacked recycling principally on the right side of our political system as literally a communist plot forcing people, American citizens, to do things that they don’t want to do. This never happened. In fact it’s actually the reverse. These laws have been imposed by citizens to force corporations and cities to do things differently.
The second thing is that the industry and the big shots in the industry, such as Waste Management Inc. and other national companies, are in a position now where they’re controlling millions and millions of tons of raw material and they cannot make a profit at it. Mr. Steiner has been one of the leaders who have been complaining, I wouldn’t say whining, that they can’t make money off of recycling. When in fact, the way they handle recycling in their business model is the reason why they can’t make money on recycling. Waste management Inc. is a very powerful and wealthy company and their main asset is the landfills they own. Everybody knows in the garbage industry that landfill value today is not nearly what it will be in the future, so if you own a landfill you want that landfill to last as long as possible. By filling it up every day as much as you can put in the landfill is not very helpful.
In the case of organic food and yard debris, which is maybe 30 to 40% of a typical city or county’s waste stream, Waste Management Inc. wants to put that in their landfill and then later on years later recover methane through tapping the landfill; a very inefficient and very polluting system. On the other hand, if Waste Management Inc. were to set up its landfills to receive yard debris and food waste … By the way are needed for a good recipe for creating a rich compost and topsoil … That landfill will last years if not decades longer by keeping 30 to 40% of the material out of the landfill by processing the material through the facility and retaining the future value of landfill space for the shareholders of the company.
Chris Mitchell: Let’s talk for a second about Waste Management. You just mentioned them and also referenced a couple of other companies, but here in the St. Paul I pay a local company to haul my waste away. It’s a small family-owned company. I think waste management is different and operates on an entirely different scale. Are they actually one of the biggest waste haulers in the United States?
Neil Seldman: Yes. There are two major national companies, Allied and Waste Management Inc., both of them are conglomerates which have been put together by buyouts over the last 40 or 50 years. Those two companies control about 60% of the solid waste management market; that means recycling, landfilling. Those companies have taken a few steps back from incineration. In the traditional sense they are incinerating garbage in different ways, which I can explain, but for the most part 60% of the market around the country is controlled by those two companies.
Chris Mitchell: You’re saying that they actually make most of their money off of the landfill operations, not just moving the waste, but actually where they put it and how they get rid of it.
Neil Seldman: Yes. I’m recalling articles from about 10 years ago now where Wall Street analysts estimated that Waste Management Inc. makes about 10 times more money when they put stuff in landfills or incinerators as compared to recycling. Also Wall Street reports have come out again over the last 10 years explaining to shareholders that recycling lowers the value of Waste Management Inc. stock because they’re processing a lot of material and not making as much money as they would if they handled it as garbage.
Chris Mitchell: Let me see if I got this right, because I’ve studied a little bit of economics and I find it really fascinating, frankly. Some might say that a company like Waste Management they just can’t make as much money recycling as they can burning it or burying it. Is that just because Waste Management doesn’t have to pay for the externalities, the damage that it causes in terms of air pollution from incineration or groundwater pollution from the landfill leaks or even methane in the atmosphere?
Neil Seldman: Yes. Waste Management Inc. and many of the waste companies benefit because they do not pay for these externalities. They lobby a great deal to try to increase the amounts of pollution that they’re allowed [inaudible 00:08:40] of incinerators and landfills. It’s a three-way battle between government regulators, industry lobbyists and grassroots people who want to stop landfilling and incineration. The externalities and garbage are all quite large. Even in economics, the economics of recycling is better than the economics of disposal and pollution coming from recycling is minuscule compared to the pollution that comes from disposal either in landfills or incinerators.
Chris Mitchell: I think he also attacked glass very specifically. I’m not an expert in this field, but I would have thought, and it just naively I guess, that paper is probably among the more valuable recycled materials, but that glass would be up there really high too.
Neil Seldman: Glass is very valuable. The glass manufacturing industry loves recycled glass because it lowers energy use, lowers pollution and allows their vats to extend their working life by around 20%. On the other hand, the glass industry offers very small amounts of money for glass anywhere from five to 20 to $30 per ton, and yet there are very, very economically useful and lucrative uses of glass as an abrasive in the construction industry. In this article that Mr. Steiner offers he suggests that glass is not economically viable to collect. Well, that’s just not true. Go to any bottle bill state, that’s a state that has a container deposit law, and through that law glass is aggregated and people come and get that material.
Recently in Houston Waste Management Inc. decided to stop collecting glass. Another company, Strategic Materials, stepped right in and is now collecting glass and doing quite well. I would disagree with you, Chris, in saying that glass or paper is the most valuable.
Chris Mitchell: You’re the expert, so please, please go on and correct me.
Neil Seldman: Well, it’s not a correction. It’s just another insight as to different types of value. I consider organics the most valuable material in the waste stream because it deals with a problem that is plaguing the United States, and that is the loss of  topsoil, in which case organics are invaluable because that’s the only way of replacing that topsoil. If you combine the food waste and the yard debris and soiled paper, as I said, you have 40 to 50% of your waste stream. If you segregate that and deal with it using local markets, because you can’t send compost more than 40 or 50 miles and make money, the demand for compost is year-round and it’s insatiable by farmers and landscape people as well as home gardeners.
The organics are extremely valuable. They have economic value. Good compost is worth about $75 a ton. In some cases you could process that material into compost teas and vermicomposting feeding it to worms and you could get two or three times the value of straight compost. So I would consider the organics the most valuable because they allow for value added in the local economy. The other very valuable material is electronic scrap, which also allows for tremendous value added and transfer of skills to people that are critical for society.
Chris Mitchell: I think that as we’re thinking about building local power, the waste stream it’s important because it’s everywhere. It’s under local control and is something that we can really benefit from when we use it wisely. Throughout this conversation we’ve really focused on items that are in the waste stream, like physical things. After more than 40 years of working in this field though, Neil, you’ve identified additional benefits from the larger recycling movement. What’s happening there?
Neil Seldman: Yes. The recycling movement in the United States not only has created 60,000 companies, a million jobs and delivers 200 million tons of raw material a year to industry and agriculture, it also produces citizen leaders and national leaders. The citizens got together on their own. They were appalled at what was happening in landfills and incinerators. In fact, initiating a proposal for incinerators sparked the grassroots anti-incineration movement, which in the mid-70s merged with the burgeoning recycling movement. The determinants here have been active citizens.
I’ll give two examples only, but I could give you dozens if not scores. Bill Pascrell was a medical doctor in Paterson, New Jersey. They planned an incinerator. He realized how devastating that would be with its air pollution, etc. He became Mayor campaigning against incineration, and now he sits in the House of Representatives representing the Paterson area. The story of Representative Pascrell is indicative of many City Council and County Counsel officials who rose up through the anti-incineration movement.
My favorite story is of Ms. Penny Wheat who lived in Gainesville, Florida and was a regular citizen until she testified against the incinerator that was planned for that county. She was told to go back to her kitchen, which she probably did, and organized her campaign for County Commissioner. She won that campaign with more votes than any other elected official in the county to that point. She then organized citizens and the local DPW to implement an excellent solid waste management system, which is now at about 50% recycling heading to 75% over the next few years, and the county will be the only county in Florida to reach the state mandated 75% recycling goal without incineration. Unfortunately in Florida incineration counts for recycling.
The role of the Institute in working with these newly empowered citizens was one, to bring information and the vision of what can happen, and also to organize local people with national experts on landfills, on incineration and the mechanics of recycling. The key to our success has been that we’ve work with groups that are unlikely allies. For example, white environmentalists in LA started working with residents of public housing were Latino and Black. Once the politicians saw that these groups that usually don’t work together were working together to stop incineration, the whole atmosphere changed. Mayors changed their positions, mayors retired, and as a result of these very formidable local groups with the Institute’s help, they stopped the incinerator, these coalitions stayed together to solve the problem.
There’s a myth, also put out by industry that recycling and government, that recycling is stagnating. Well, recycling is stagnating where cities are stagnating. Every city that has had a proposed incinerator and had an active group fighting it has become one of the leaders in recycling in the United States. I do have to restate that I know of two cities that stopped incinerators where the coalitions did not keep their strength up and that was Philadelphia and Washington. Whereas LA and these other cities that are a very high levels of recycling, Washington and Philadelphia are still below the national average. But in most of the cities that defeated incinerators the coalitions stayed together and help the city solve the problems.
Chris Mitchell: I think we need to note that in talking about organizing people we’re actually talking about the communities with the least political power. That’s where the incinerators are often attempted to be sited. It’s in the areas with the lowest incomes, where they have the most people of color. Those are the people, those low income mostly people of color, they’re the people that have been galvanized and organized on these issues. Is that right?
Neil Seldman: Yes, I think the recycling movement has shown people who are usually not in power what the potential for acquiring power can be through local organizing and linking up with groups that are organized in different areas that your primary interest is but in areas that overlap with your primary interest. I think that has been the key to grassroots recycling organizing that has crossed gender lines, age lines, race and class lines, ethnic lines, because people from all aspects of life understand recycling, like recycling, and knows that recycling contributes not only to the local economy but it also can alleviate the pressures of climate change.
Chris Mitchell: As we wrap up, I had asked you for a book or an article recommendation and it turns out that like Olivia from the first show you actually just read Anna Karenina, but we’re not going to let you reuse that. What would suggest that people give a read to?
Neil Seldman: Well, there are two obvious books that beginners in this field and even experts will benefit from. That is from two very close friends of the Institute; Paul Connett, Professor of Chemistry, now retired, he wrote a book called Zero Waste: Untrashing the Planet One Community at a Time. Paul has some wonderful observations, and he has many chapters which are written by experts in the field. The Institute is represented; Brenda Platt has a chapter, I have a chapter. The other excellent book I would read is Plastic Ocean and that is written by Captain Charles Moore. In the mid 1990s Charles and his crew were the first people to discover the level of plastic in the ocean, and that started the movement to start addressing the pollution of plastic in the ocean. I recently interviewed Charles and said, “It’s not only plastic ocean, it’s plastic people because we are now eating the fish that eat the plastic that gets into the ocean.”
Charles Moore and the Institute are working together on the Save the Albatross coalition, which will put pressure on soda and beverage manufacturers, distributors and manufacturers, to tether the caps to the bottles, because it’s the caps that the albatross is eating and thinking it’s food. I think those two books will give people a good background and a good sense of what challenges are ahead in changing the current solid waste system into a zero waste system.
Chris Mitchell: Great. Thank you so much for being on this show today. We’re going to hear from you again in the future as we continue to discuss strategies for building local power. Thank you everyone.
Neil Seldman: Great Chris. Thanks so much. It’s always fun talking to you.
Lisa Gonzales: That was Neil Seldman visiting with Chris Mitchell for Episode number two of the Building Local Power podcast. Be sure to check out the Waste Wealth Initiative at so you can learn more about the issues Neil discussed, including composting, zero waste and economic development, and the movement to stop incineration.
Subscribe to this podcast and all the podcasts in the ILSR podcast family on iTunes, Stitcher or wherever else you get your podcasts. Never miss out on our original research by also subscribing to our monthly newsletter at Thanks to Dysfunction Al for the music, licensed under Creative Commons. The song is Funk Interlude. I’m Lisa Gonzales from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Thanks again for listening to the Building Local Power podcast. See you next time.

Like this episode? Please help us reach a wider audience by rating Building Local Power on iTunes or wherever you find your podcasts. And please become a subscriber!  If you missed our previous episodes make sure to bookmark our Building Local Power Podcast Homepage

If you have show ideas or comments, please email us at Also, join the conversation by talking about #BuildingLocalPower on Twitter and Facebook!

Subscribe: iTunes | Android | RSS

Audio Credit: Funk Interlude by Dysfunction_AL Ft: Fourstones – Scomber (Bonus Track). Copyright 2016 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license.

Follow the Institute for Local Self-Reliance on Twitter and Facebook and, for monthly updates on our work, sign-up for our ILSR general newsletter.

Avatar photo
Follow Nick Stumo-Langer:
Nick Stumo-Langer

Nick Stumo-Langer was Communications Manager at ILSR working for all five initiatives. He ran ILSR's Facebook and Twitter profiles and builds relationships with reporters. He is an alumnus of St. Olaf College and animated by the concerns of monopoly power across our economy.