Comments (edited version) by Neil Seldman at the Zero Waste Symposium – held February 4, 2014
Sponsored by Zero Waste San Diego and the California Resource Recovery Association (CRRA)
February 4, 2014
Thank you very much, Rick. It’s always a pleasure to come back to California – certainly San Diego. Many of you know that I learned my recycling in California many years ago. And, my first assignments were helping to replace planned incinerators in LA and San Diego with recycling. And here are two of the people here who taught me – Jon Michael Huls and Rick Anthony; Kathy Evans, is still an active recycler in Berkeley; Cliff Humphrey is working in Kansas City. Mike Anderson and Bernie Meyerson have retired.
California has been a leader in recycling for many, many years. If you trace the CRRA policy positions, within a few years they became national NRC and federal positions. California pioneered in minimum content legislation. California introduced the RMDZs. No other state has them. Every city now wants a resource recovery park. I think we have 30 here in rural and urban areas. The California bottle bill is the only one in the nation that has built a statewide recycling infrastructure. Virtually all of our jobs in this room were created because of the nationwide recycling movement, which was stimulated here in California some 50 years ago. Among other things, I think the latest developments in EPR in California are very important for the rest of the country. I’m going to come back to this issue, but I want to point out that the statements from the Berkeley Zero Waste Commission and the CRRA Global Recycling Council have been very important in changing the trajectory of EPR from an industry-controlled and owned system to a balanced government-private sector community-sector system, and I think that is a tremendous achievement. I’m going to end by talking about how important the EPR mattress law is, and whether we’re going to see progress or fall back.
I also love this conference. I can barely summarize what went on here today in 10 minutes as Rick and Laura Anthony asked of me, so I will take a few days and write up a complete summary of what I heard and learned. I have 10 pages of notes to draw on, and I may be calling a few people to get all the facts straight, as the information was fast and furious.
For me, the statement of the day that I heard is that here in San Diego, you are tired of hearing about San Francisco! “Let’s hear about zero waste San Diego!” (Applause) I love this type of friendly competition between two great places. Given some anticipated corrections on recycling numbers being planned by CalRecycle, Oceanside in San Diego County may be right up there with San Francisco as the leading recycling city in the US. It is interesting to note that San Francisco has reached its recycling goals through a franchise monopoly, while San Diego County has a decentralized approach, but, apparently, is just as effective.
And finally, I want to say about state activity that I think the developments in CalRecycle are extraordinary – I know there are some problems, and there are good discussions going on, but the agency is correcting the numbers on recycling – e.g., it makes sense, of course, not to count landfill cover as recycling; CalRecycle established higher goals at 75% diversion; and, very important from the point of view of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, CalRecycle wants to stop sending our valuable materials out of California. To quote my colleague at ILSR, Brenda Platt: LOCAL is the future of recycling in California, not CHINA. And that’s where the RMDZs are critical. They represent the “pot of gold at the end of the garbage rainbow” by adding local value to materials through processing and manufacturing. No other state has such a network of Resource Recovery Industrial Parks. With the availability of $30 million for the recycling sector from the state’s Cap and Trade Fund, we can expect even more activity in RMDZ development. Nothing can beat the jobs, small to medium sized businesses, and expanded tax base that these materials represent.
You folks in San Diego are doing it, and it’s great to keep coming back to San Diego since the ’70s and see this development. The spread of the megalopolis has not been so pleasant, but the recycling policies and actions have been.
Let me talk about EPR. I know there are only a few minutes left. It’s a very complicated issue, so I’m going to start from a simple position, and then hopefully build out from there some. The simple formula, if you will, is: if there’s something in our waste stream and in our community that can add wealth by processing it, by separating it, deconstructing it, reaping it, manufacturing from it– we want that to stay local. We don’t want corporations to own that material. We want them to participate in the infrastructure development, but we don’t want them to own it, and I’ll tell you why. It gets down to two basics: a. concentration of our economy, the Wal-Mart economy, low wages, cheap goods, exploiting overseas people and overseas environment and democracy; and b. the threat to local citizen organizing and voting power at the local level that has brought us to this point in history of post-World War II recycling in the US.
a. Citizens need to rein in the power of corporations, not seek them out to solve a problem of waste management that these corporations have created. If we allow original manufacturers to take valuable materials from our communities, we will be strengthening their position to increase their domination and despoiling of the environment and the economy. We need, among other important steps, the redesign of products and packages. The manufacturers just want more throughput in the economy, not intelligent and nurturing design.
b. None of us would be in our jobs today if not for the spontaneous nationwide democratic effort that has been cross-gender, cross-race, cross-class, cross-generation and cross-political lines: the recycling movement starting in the late ’60s. It is a social movement, and the reason it succeeded – it’s perhaps the most successful environmental movement in the country – is because garbage decisions are made exclusively at the local level of government, virtually the only level where citizens still have power. Citizen and small business input carried the recycling movement from drop off to curbside and, now, to zero waste.
Let me use what happened recently in New York City to make my point. You may know that recently New York City banned, or is about to ban, polystyrene, and so on. This is critical because when you give control over the decision-making on solid waste, you abdicate citizen input. If your mayor and city council sign a deal with an EPR stewardship bureaucracy dominated by industrial corporations to “take care” of recycling and solid waste management, and they decide to burn what they can’t recycle, where are you going to go to protest their building that costly and polluting facility? Citizen action was, as you know, the key to canceling 38 planned incinerators in the state in the l980s and l990s. When the anti-incineration groups needed alternatives, they and the recycling movement joined forces. People didn’t want to live with burners, and they looked around and they found a fledgling recycling movement. They joined together and we now have an incredible recycling movement, certainly here in California. Nationwide, these alliances defeated 300 planned incinerators.
The reason why the version of EPR that calls for industrial ownership of the system is popular with the beverage, hauling and packaging industries is that these industries don’t want to be picked apart, as happened with the polystyrene situation in New York City and the anti-plastic bag efforts around the US. Polystyrene is the biggest profit maker for the plastic industry; New York City is the biggest single market in the country. Zero wasters – recyclers – will not be satisfied until we change history, as EPA official Penny Hansen observed in l972. And you can’t change history if you abdicate decision making to concentrated corporations.
The EPR law in California for mattresses could be a great thing. Hundreds, if not thousands, of jobs will be created IF the rule making – which is taking place right now under the auspices of an appointed advisory committee – sets the upfront fee at $10. That fee is enough to afford several mattress recycling plants; you already have a couple in the state. In Connecticut, the same thing is happening: we’ve got one small community-owned plant that the ILSR and Saint Vincent De Paul, Eugene helped start in Bridgeport, with a capacity of 100,000 mattresses a year. There’s a much larger private-sector one with 600,000-mattress-a-year capacity. There are going to be at least a million mattresses a year recycled in Connecticut – much more in California, because there are so many more people here. If that upfront fee is set at $5 per mattress, which of course is a tiny fraction of the cost of a mattress product or box spring, what is going to happen to that material? It’s going to be shredded and fed to incinerators. It’s a perfect incineration fuel – wood, plastic, foam rubber, et cetera. 90% of mattresses can be recycled and are being recycled; 95% can be burned.
So you folks here have this decision that I think will test the soul of recycling in California. If you allow this industrial group to take control of all your mattresses and do what they want to do with them, you will probably get a $5 surcharge when you buy your mattress and box spring, and that material will be feedstock for incinerators. If you do $10, you will get hundreds of jobs at $14 an hour plus health insurance. For California working people this is a wage/benefit level that can keep a family together. So the EPR decision in this state is not only going to test your soul in terms of recycling; it’s going to test your soul in terms of social equity and social benefits.
One of the things I loved about today is that so many speakers talked about zero waste as a social phenomenon, not a waste-stream phenomenon. You’re talking about kids; you’ve got things going on at school; you’ve got college courses training the resource managers of California’s future; and, of course you’ve got government programs that are transferring investments into this sector. Recycling is the key to economic, environmental and social progress. Recycling is the bedrock of sustainability.
Let me just end with these observations about the concentration of political economy that we are facing as a nation and socviety. What’s going on in our economy is not new. In the early 1800s, analysts pointed out that capitalism doesn’t treat trees and children on their balance sheets, hence they get no recognition in the distribution of economic and political goods. Yet trees and children are the best investment you could make. Think of the productivity that you get when you plant a tree or you raise a child successfully. These critics saw that the industrial companies looked at nature as a sink for their waste and a free storehouse for their raw materials. In the mid-1800s, an observer pointed out that consumers are fooled by clever, ubiquitous and subliminal messages, very imaginative and slick in support of runaway, hedonistic, conspicuous consumption that creates unnatural and imaginary appetites. Think of TV; think of all the things that stimulate us to do things that are bad for us, bad for our community, bad for nature and bad for democracy. In the late 1880s, another critic observed that despite extraordinary growth in industrial production, the gulf between rich and poor has widened. This makes everyday life a direct threat to the stability of a democratic society. You cannot base a political economy on US institutions that sustain gross inequality where citizens are supposed to be politically equal. This is standing a pyramid on its head. Eventually it will fall.
The U.S. recycling movement is not just an environmental movement. It is a movement that has made millions of activists in the struggle to reclaim democracy in the marketplace, and made clear progress in reaching an ample life for all.
There are feasible alternatives to corporate dominated EPR. California has proven that it can be done.
EPR is a critically important concept. It has to be kept under public control. Under no circumstances should industrial companies – the concentrated companies who are burdening us economically, socially and environmentally – be allowed to own the discard system. We cannot abdicate and give decision-making power to them. EPR is a great concept; it needs community and government control as set forth by proper thinking Californians.
Thank you for your time.