Opening Remarks On
Welfare for Waste


Brenda Platt
Member, Board of Directors, GrassRoots Recycling Network
Director, Materials Recovery, Institute for Local Self-Reliance

National Press Club
Washington, D.C.
April 8, 1999

Good morning! I am Brenda Platt, speaking this morning on behalf of the GrassRoots Recycling Network. With me at the podium are Ralph DeGennaro, executive director of Taxpayers for Common Sense, Erich Pica from Friends of the Earth, and John Young, director of the Materials Efficiency Project. Our organizations have worked together for more than a year to research and produce Welfare for Waste: How Federal Taxpayer Subsidies Waste Resources and Discourage Recycling.

Each of us will have some brief remarks before taking questions. I have also invited Les Ulanow, general manager of ABC Salvage here in Washington, DC, to speak as a businessman about the issue of recycling and subsidies.

We are speaking this morning on behalf of 120 organizations and businesses across the nation who are calling on Congress to end a system of economic preferences that discourages recycling. Specifically, we have identified 15 federal taxpayer subsidies for timber, mining, energy and waste disposal costing the Treasury $2.6 billion each year or $13 billion dollars over 5 years.

Congress created the system of tax and spending subsidies decades ago, when our natural resources seemed limitless. Today, circumstances have changed. There is a new respect developing for business practices that are sustainable over the long term while minimizing damage to the environment.

Recycling is a key element in the new approach, which some call materials efficiency.

Americans love recycling.

Liberal or conservative, rich or poor, rural or urban, Americans have embraced recycling in a way that few other activities unite us. It is more popular than voting. More than 120 million of us recycle.

In the past decade, recycling grew beyond all expectations. National recycling rates doubled. About 30 percent of all municipal solid waste is now recycled, reused or composted. The number of curbside recycling programs has grown from about 1,040 a decade ago to over 8,900 today. Why is recycling so popular? The general public understands that recycling saves energy and other resources. It reduces pollution. It extends the life of existing landfills. It turns waste into valuable products. It can reduce municipal solid waste budgets. And it is also an economic development tool.

In my capacity as director of materials recovery at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance here in Washington, DC, it is my job to study recycling systems, particularly their economic benefits.

Economic benefits of recycling

  • Recycled materials are a local resource that can contribute to local revenue, job creation, business expansion, and the local economic tax base.
  • Recycling creates 10 times as many jobs as sending the same materials to landfills. Thatís just the jobs sorting glass, paper, metals and plastics in preparation for making new products from the old.
  • New recycling-based manufacturers employ even more people and at higher wages. Recycling-based paper mills and plastic product manufacturers, for instance, employ 60 times more workers than do landfills.
  • Making new products from the old offers the largest economic pay-off in the recycling loop. Product reuse (another form of recycling) offers communities similar economic benefits. More than 100,000 new jobs could be created by reusing half of the 25.5 million tons of household durable products now sent to landfills or incinerated.

We now know that recycling can cut our municipal waste in half. Hundreds of communities report recycling levels above 50%. Long gone are the days of boy scouts collecting newspapers. Recycling is now a major player in how many of our cities handle solid waste.

Yet, recycling faces a variety of economic obstacles to its stability and growth. Today we are focused on one of these obstacles: the uneven playing field on which recycling competes with virgin materials and waste disposal industries. Federal subsidies for resource extraction and waste disposal directly undermine recycling efforts. These subsidies, to the tune of $13 billion over 5 years, waste taxpayer money while encouraging environmental depletion, pollution, lost job opportunities, and trashing of recyclable resources.

Progress in recycling and building a new economic ethic based on materials efficiency will only succeed if we root out the complex system of economic preferences rewarding waste and environmental destruction. Eliminating these 15 federal subsidies is a first step in that process.

I am a new mother. As never before, I appreciate that recycling is part of building a sound economy and a healthy environment for my child.

It's appalling to think of the wasteful spending by Congress on these ridiculously outmoded subsidies.

My colleagues will talk more specifically about the tax and spending subsidies. I want to highlight the key finding in Welfare for Waste.

Recycling competes directly with virgin materials, such as timber, oil and mineral resources, and waste disposal industries on an uneven playing field. American taxpayer money is used to directly reduce production costs for virgin materials firms while recycling companies get far less comparable support.

Aluminum smelters, for instance, receive $200 million per year in federal electricity subsidies. Timber companies get subsidies to cut trees in national forests and receive special tax breaks for timber cutting on private lands. When wood is less expensive than it otherwise would be, paper recycling has a more difficult road to hoe to be competitive.

Resource-efficient recycling and reuse businesses, which tend to be smaller, community-based and run by entrepreneurs, struggle against subsidized competitors.

Eliminating these subsidies is an essential step toward creating a more level playing field on which recycling can compete. It will conserve resources and save taxpayer dollars at the same time.

We believe that even more significant than the dollars saved by eliminating these subsidies is the message it sends about America's future. Congress can demonstrate that true welfare reform means ending welfare for waste.


I will be pleased to answer your questions after brief remarks by my colleagues

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