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Recycling Wars: Opponents Touch Gloves, Now What?

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The debate as to the value of recycling—especially the residential component—was fully flocked and raging well before my ascension to MSW Management’s pulpit (1992) with good and honest people taking up cudgels in support of antithetical positions with near religious ferocity. So this latest flurry of activity, spawned at least in part by another of New York Times columnist John Tierney’s backhanded swipes at the practice, is neither surprising nor filled with damning new information. But unlike its 1996 predecessor, Tierney’s latest salvo has succeeded in provoking responses that suggest that the waste industry and its recycling community are taking some features of the attack very seriously…a positive reaction that is apt to do more to move our transitioning focus from waste- to materials-management than through the crafting of Maginot Line defenses in support of 1980’s waste wars.

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Below is the reasoned response of a trio of well-known and respected industry leaders whose thoughts on recycling and media assaults are well worth your consideration:

Op-Ed Joint Industry Viewpoint on Recycling

Recent media reports have painted a confusing and misinformed picture of recycling,
calling it wasteful, ineffective, and costly. Unfortunately, these articles completely overlook the positive economic impact of this activity on the U.S. economy. The reality is that recycling in the United States is a vibrant activity and a key driver in domestic and global manufacturing, supplying more than 130 million tons annually of scrap metals, paper, electronics, plastics, rubber, glass, and textiles for manufacture into new products. The business of recycling represents nearly $106 billion in annual economic activity and is responsible for 471,587 direct and indirect U.S. jobs, generating more than $4.3 billion in state and local revenues annually, and another $6.76 billion in federal taxes.

Robin Wiener
Robin Wiener

The environmental impact of recycling cannot be ignored. The reality is that recycling is an important part of our national infrastructure, providing an effective and currently irreplaceable means of reducing landfill space and transforming end-of-life products and materials into valuable materials that are used to manufacture new products. Numerous independent studies have shown that recycling offers environmental benefits over landfilling and incineration. Among the most important are the reduction in energy use to manufacture with recycled feedstock (compared to using virgin material) and the very dramatic reduction in air pollutants, including greenhouse gas emissions, as a result of reduced energy usage. The U.S. EPA found that municipal recycling and composting in 2013 reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 186 million tons, comparable to annual emissions from more than 39 million passenger cars.

Yes, some segments of the recycling industry—particularly those that handle municipal recyclables—are currently experiencing unique challenges as a result of a changing

Jennifer Jehn
Jennifer Jehn

business model and increasing quality concerns. In those segments, decreased commodity prices combined with efforts to make recycling more convenient for consumers have affected both the economics and the processing requirements for recyclables. However, it is important to recognize that the public and private entities involved with municipal recycling are taking proactive steps to address program funding and material quality to offset lower commodity prices. It is also important to put municipal recycling in perspective. Although it manages more than 80 million tons annually, this effort accounts for less than half of the total recycling activity occurring in the United States each year.

David Biderman
David Biderman

Unfortunately, by narrowly focusing on certain negative details while lumping everything else together, the media reports effectively discourage people from recycling altogether. This would be a major setback for U.S. residents and future generations, and it is why as an industry, organizations such as ISRI, Keep America Beautiful, and the Solid Waste Association of North America partner to showcase the enormous environmental and economic benefits of recycling. With America Recycles Day approaching on November 15, let’s focus on what works, address the challenges, better engage the public on what to recycle, and develop the processes, technology, and markets needed to expand robust, sustainable recycling. Turning our backs on recycling altogether would significantly hurt the U.S. balance of trade, reduce jobs in the recycling industry, manufacturing that has come to rely on recyclables as a feedstock, the environment, and sustainable materials management. That would be a
major step backward for our country and the health of the planet.

Robin K. Wiener, President, Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries
Jennifer M. Jehn, President and CEO, Keep America Beautiful
David Biderman, Executive Director and CEO, Solid Waste Association of North America

To me, the challenge to recycling is a gold-plated opportunity to refocus our materials management efforts on programs and practices invested in today’s environmental, economic, and social realities, not those of another epoch.

Frankly, I’d love to see Mr. Tierney make his case to a roomful of knowledgeable industry professionals and hear his responses to their questions and challenges. If he’s game, it would be terrific for him to attend SWANAPalooza next April in Charlotte, NC. In fact, MSW Management would be delighted to host him if he’s up for the challenge.

Finally, please share your thoughts on the situation. MSW_bug_web

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