A Fresh Look At The State Of The Art Of Recycling
[From Seventh Generation - Non-Toxic Times Vol. 1, No. 9 (June 2000)]
A Few Thoughts from Jeffrey Hollender, President
Anybody remember recycling? Saving the planet bottle by bottle, it used to be all the rage. But you don't hear a lot about it these days. We're all still dutifully trundling our newspapers out to the curb, but we're not talking about it much anymore. Lately, I've been wondering just what our diminishing national focus on recycling means. Have we won the war on waste? Did we get so good at recycling that we don't need to think about it anymore? According to a new report from the Grassroots Recycling Network, the answer is yes. And also no.
According to the report, Wasting and Recycling in the U.S. 2000 (or W2K ), we've come a long way. In the last 15 years, national recycling rates have reached 28%. That means we're close to recycling a third of all our waste. In many towns, the figure is over 50%. Since 1990, local recycling programs have more than tripled from 2,700 to 9,300. Companies have joined the bandwagon too. Today, some are recycling almost 90% of their waste. Not too bad for a country that just a few years ago was quite content to throw it all away.
This is great news. But the report is also quick to point out that after years of shrinking, our solid waste is gaining on us once again. For example, even though we're recycling more, manufacturers are making and packaging ever increasing amounts of products with plastic that either lacks any meaningful recycled content or is difficult to recycle. According to the W2K report, from 1990-1997, plastic packaging grew five times faster by weight than plastic recovered for recycling. When it comes to glass and aluminum, the story is similar. So even though you and I keep trying to recycle it all, it's getting harder and harder to keep up.
Making products out of the things we recycle also remains a challenge. Strange though it seems, virgin materials are still cheaper than recycled materials. As someone whose life is dedicated to closing the loop, I've lost sleep over this one. We pay more to use recycled materials in our company's products. Why? Because hidden subsidies and a lack of true cost accounting keep the prices for virgin materials artificially low.
For example, tax dollars pay for roads in National Forests that timber companies then use to harvest trees at what are essentially subsidized, below-market rates. National Forest taxpayer subsidies save forest companies over a billion dollars each year and keep virgin pulp prices lower than they should be. Mining companies are exempt from hazardous waste rules that would raise their costs and make recycled metal competitive. The real price of plastic manufacturing, which should include pollution and environmental degradation, never appears on the books. If manufacturers actually had to pay to clean up the mess they make making virgin plastic, they'd be screaming for recycled instead.
In spite of the obstacles, I've never stopped believing in a zero waste society. Recycle everything. Landfill nothing. It's perfect. So perfect that you'd think the idea would have universal appeal in an economy so intensely focused on efficiency. What's not to love about recycling? It creates 10 jobs for every one job created at a landfill. It's better for the environment. It saves natural resources, conserves huge amounts of energy, closes landfills, prevents waste incineration, and results in much less air and water pollution. It helps prevent global warming. It improves public health. It's the mother of environmental no-brainers.
There's a lot of useful information in the W2K report. Everyone should read it. Like any good story, it's got a meaningful moral: we've done a lot of recycling, but there's still more left to do. It's time for us to next step and create that culture of zero waste. It's the smart thing to do, the right thing to do, and the best thing to do. The only real question is why on Earth we would do anything else. To view portions of the W2K report, learn more about it, obtain a complete copy, or learn how you can give recycling an even bigger boost, I highly recommend a visit to the Grassroots Recycling Network web site at http://www.grrn.org.