November 1, 2003 | General


Neil Seldman
BioCycle November 2003, Vol. 44, No. 11, p. 60
THE PERCENTAGE of discarded materials recycled has soared from five percent (eight million tons) in l968, to 30 percent (75 million tons) today. In some industries such as automobile, paper and cardboard, recycled materials comprise a majority of feedstocks used in new products.

From a few cities with curbside collection in l970 to 9,000 today, recycling has become in this time frame a permanent part of daily life. More people recycle every day at home, school and work than vote regularly in elections. The impact has been dramatic. In l968 the U.S. recycling industry consisted of 8,000 companies that employed 79,000 people, with annual sales of $4.6 billion. By 2000, 56,000 private and public facilities employed 1.1 million people and had $236 billion in annual sales. From l967 to 2000, the recycling industry experienced yearly employment growth rates of 8.3 percent. In comparison, total U.S. employment grew 2.1 percent annually in this time period. In Ohio, the recycling industry is a $650 million sector of the economy. In California it is a $1.8 billion sector.
Despite those impressive numbers, recycling has hit a plateau at about 30 percent of the municipal solid waste stream since the late l990s. Given the budget crisis many cities are facing, cutting recycling appears to be an easy opportunity for savings. But as cities tried this approach, citizen response was immediate. Programs that were cancelled were reestablished. Plans for cutting recycling were scrapped.
It should also be kept in mind that while the national recycling rate is 30 percent, major cities and small towns have individually reached 40 percent, 50 percent and even 60 percent recycling, composting and source reduction. For example, the City of Los Angeles and Alameda County in California, having reached their state mandated goal of 50 percent recycling, have announced 70 percent goals. These local jurisdictions have used techniques that are available to any other city or town of comparable size.
The forces railing against recycling are fighting for their considerable vested interests in traditional solid waste management. They would lose a great deal if recycling became dominant. Waste management would become resource management implying a different array of industrial activity. Intuition tells us which industries oppose recycling.
The virgin materials industry fights recycling because it does not want competition. Each industrial raw material is extracted and processed by an oligopoly of four to six corporations. Since each city and town in the country can generate and process metal, plastic, paper and glass materials that are 100 percent substitutable for virgin materials, the recycling sector is comprised of thousands of direct competitors to the virgin materials corporations.
The waste hauling industry, which has also grown into a national oligopoly in which three firms dominate the collection, transfer and disposal markets, also detests recycling. These firms make ten times as much profit when disposing of waste as they do when they recycle materials. Waste industry officials boast that their goal is monopoly power that will allow them to raise rates at will as governments and small haulers have no place else to go. The industry fully understands how recycling provides leverage against these goals of concentration. “For nearly a decade,” one industry analyst stated, “recycling has decimated aggregate volume growth in the traditional waste management business….Less recycling should lead to accelerated disposal volumes, which in turn should lead to price leverage for landfill operators.”
Recycling, composting and waste reduction have been basic precepts of sustainability – essential for a sustainable industrial economy – because they offer long-term solutions. They foster cooperation among government agencies, community organizations, schools, local private haulers, processors and manufacturers. Recycling allows for production and consumption without depleting natural resources and energy. Through composting and vermicomposting, it returns organic matter to nature.
Recycling is a strong force for decentralizing the economy. Manufacturers that use recycled materials require less capital to build and operate than virgin materials manufacturers. Recycling based manufacturers need to be close to their sources of materials to reduce transportation costs. Each level of collection, processing, manufacturing and consumption adds economic value (jobs, skills, businesses, profits), adding to the local tax base and recycling dollars through the city and region.
Finally, recycling parallels the entrepreneurial optimism needed for a sustainable industrial economy. Unlike other aspects of the environmental movement, sustainability 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 antibusiness, but are for new approaches to business and industry.
These credentials are the basis for the recycling movement to reach out to the sustainability activists. As Leopold Kohr famously pointed out, “some problems cannot be solved at their own level.” The timing for reaching beyond traditional recycling activism is critical because it is apparent that recycling can not 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 this sector currently determine the recycling movement’s 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. Recyclers are asked to mop up the floor. Yet they know that the first step is to close the tap.
Recycling prospered before it was economically viable as mission driven citizens, through their elected officials, changed the rules of solid waste management. This array of new rules – mandatory recycling, variable can rates, landfill bans, procurement preferences, financing mechanisms – changed the signals that the market was giving to investors who favored recycling. A much broader investment is needed in transportation, agriculture, energy and manufacturing sectors for recycling to reach its goal – shared with sustainability activists – 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 beyond municipal solid waste to consider upstream and downstream impacts of the waste sector and how changes in the industrial production system must change if sustainability is to be realized.
The issue remains to be discussed whether the recycling movement and the sustainability movement grow together. The immediate question must be which sustainability movement are we talking about? The sustainability movement presented in recent books, articles and conferences as a movement dominated by CEOs, corporate good will and enlightened self interest, or the community sustainability movement which is for changing rules that require sustainable behavior for all participants in the economy. The former expression of sustainability holds up companies such as Monsanto and Shell as models, even though a small portion of their activities are truly sustainable and most of their actions are highly unsustainable. Community sustainability is represented by new rules at the state and local levels that require mass transit investment, open spaces, energy efficiency, greenhouse gas controls, living wage levels, anti-big box store regulations and home grown liquid fuels.
State recycling associations are now complemented by broad coalitions formed into overlapping networks consisting of thousands of local environmental, civic, business and local government organizations throughout the U.S.
These networks are linked nationally and internationally through cooperative efforts, shared information and joint market campaigns among members. Campaigns have focused on, for example, eliminating hazardous elements in building materials and electronics. Recycling-Zero Waste with its corollaries, Extended Producer Responsibility and Precautionary Principles, have evolved as a necessity for the success of the recycling movement. Cooperation, cross training, and merging of bottom up and top down strategies broadened 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 are 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 an ample future for citizens and the environment. And, they replace the current rules of industrial behavior which favor nonsustainable industrial activity and the collateral consequences to people and nature that it entails.
Neil Seldman is cofounder of the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance, well known for integrating recycling and community economic development through joint venture enterprises linking private firms and community development organizations. For a copy of the complete article, “The New Recycling Movement,” readers can contact the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, 2425 18th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20009. Website address is

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