by Neil N. Seldman– Institute for Local Self-Reliance
One would think that recycling, like motherhood and apple pie, would be an activity beyond reproach. After all, an enterprise that requires less than a minute a day, that makes us feel good about ourselves, that reduces pollution and saves energy would seem to have a lot going for it. Yet, in the past 12 months, increasingly vicious attacks on recycling have appeared in the popular press.
What makes these attacks so interesting is that they are not targeting government but rather the American people. Recycling is not federally funded nor federally mandated. Indeed, until recently the federal government far preferred building super landfills and large incinerators to recycling. Recycling is a grass roots, largely voluntary, and hugely popular phenomenon and may represent the most popular, multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-class, and cross-gender movement of all time.
Those in the recycling community know that there are readily available and abundant data to demonstrate that a well-run recycling program can save governments, households and businesses a great deal of money. What are the reasons that such a modest and benign activity would find itself subject to such a savage criticism?
We’ve always known that companies that extract virgin materials are wary of recycling as a competitor, because city programs and independent processors can supply the market with substitute, secondary materials. Less well know is the attitude of hauling companies. Information from national hauling companies shows the industry earning five to six times as much profit on its investment in disposal as compared to its investment in recycling. This may explain the animus toward recycling by the hauling industry. Indeed, in the l970s the hauling industry insisted that recycling beyond a few percent was impossible. In the l980s it claimed that 10 percent recycling was the limit. In the l990s it declared 25 percent the maximum feasible recycling level. By l995, in fact, the nation reached a 25 percent recycling level, which was increased to 30 percent by 1998. A new goal of 35 percent by the year 2005 was announced by the US EPA. Dozens of communities have exceeded the 40 percent level and several are breaking the 60 percent barrier. It is true that some haulers have invested in recycling and, therefore, want to amortize that investment successfully. But the overwhelming economic benefits for these companies are in disposal.
Disposal technologies such as landfills and incinerators are very capital intensive and will remain so even as efficiencies such as co-collection become standard practice. Recycling operations are labor-intensive. Thus, bankers and bond firms vigorously support disposal technologies while discounting or opposing recycling. This difference in the capital and labor intensity not only leads to powerful supporters in the disposal camp, but it also has colored even supposedly empirical analyses of the economics of waste management systems. For example, one major and widely publicized study on waste management systems economics assumed that virtually all of the costs of the system were fixed, that is, represented long-term capital investments. For those attacking recycling, as The Wall Street Journal did in a major piece in 1995, this assumption leads them to view recycling as simply an add-on cost and therefore expensive. In fact, when recycling reaches high levels and system managers view it as the way they collect wastes, then fixed costs can become variable costs. Labor can be redesigned. Twenty percent of the fleet vehicles turn over annually and can be redesigned and reduced in scale to and cost.
Attacks on recycling are not only fueled by the self-interest of national hauling firms and bonding firms, they are also ideologically motivated. An article published earlier this year by The New York Times Magazine is a good case in point. The author, John Tierney, conceded that recycling required only a minute a day of a person’s time, that it saved energy and reduced pollution and that almost everyone who participated in the activity felt good about it. Yet he concluded that recycling is “the most wasteful activity in modern America.”
Conservatives have been trying to make the case against recycling for several years. It’s not an easy sell because they can’t simply attack Washington and Big Government. Their real problem with recycling is that grassroots citizens changed the rules for private sector behavior. Organized citizens passed procurement and minimum content laws to increase recycling and changed environmental rules to bring the price of disposal to its actual cost to the economy. Thus, we changed the markets, something conservatives feel should be the province of large corporations, not citizen groups. Furthermore, the number of municipal curbside recycling programs has increased from just two in 1970 to more than 7,000 today because of citizen action. So when conservatives attack recycling they have to attack almost all or us. Their strategy is to convince us that frugality is foolish and fraudulent and even reprehensible.
More people recycle that vote in this country. Recycling is a permanent part of our democratic landscape. Recycling will not only easily withstand the current spate of attacks, it will increase its impact on our thinking and actions well into the future.