1986 - 1996


Stimulated by a letter from Jerry Powell, I decided to go through some old plastics industry publications to pull out sections that show the plastics industry’s attitude toward wasting and recycling. The results should be of interest to anyone interested in plastics issues.

The industry’s view is complicated. On the one hand, they cultivate the idea that they are leading environmentalists and recycling advocates, especially when it comes to their own products. On the other hand, they promote wasting by landfilling and incineration, and they mount stealth attacks on the rest of the recycling industry. This collection of "sound bites" is from the back side of their message.

I wrote the headlines in bold-face type. I wanted to capture the meaning and thrust of the selected quotes in a few words. With one exception, everything inside "double quotes" appeared in newsletters or reports financially underwritten by plastics and packaging corporations, except for occasional first-person quotes from these same sources that appear inside ‘single quotation marks.’ There are a few selections where I had to write some prose to link together some key quotes; the parts I wrote have no quotation marks. Also, sometimes I had to insert a word or two to make the meaning clear or the sentence complete; these additions appear in [brackets].

I’ve sometimes deleted material within quotes. Places where that happens are marked with either three ... or four .... dots. Three dots means I’ve brought parts of two or more sentences together to form one sentence; four dots means I’ve broken the quote at that point, and left out the material that followed.

In all cases, whether deleting or adding material, I tried to stay true to the intended meaning as I understood it from the overall context.

garbage burns better with plastics

"Technology problems that plagued many US resource recovery plants in the 70s are being resolved in the 80s with a new generation of plants based on mass-burn technology, according to a major builder of waste-to-energy facilities. Mass-burn municipal solid waste plants incinerate municipal solid waste with no sorting or other pre-combustion processing.... ‘The presence of plastics in the waste stream adds to the BTU (heat) content of the refuse and helps achieve necessary high-temperature combustion which destroys pollutants created by various combustible materials that make up the solid-waste mix,’ says [Kevin] Stickney, [Director of Communications, Signal Environmental Systems, Inc.]."

The Plastic Bottle Reporter, Winter, 1986

senator warns of crisis in trash handling, authors bill to ease siting incinerators

"United States Senator Quentin Burdick (D-ND) is preparing to introduce a bill to ‘provide a positive regulatory climate’ to enable wider use of municipal waste-to-energy incineration. ...Senator Burdick said that incinerators are the most promising solution to municipal solid waste disposal problems.... ‘Many parts of the country are losing their ability to cope with the mountains of trash generated by municipalities,’ Burdick said. ‘Unless we act soon to prevent a crisis in trash handling, disposal will start being handled in environmentally unacceptable ways.’ ...Regulating landfills and municipal waste-to-energy incinerators will help build citizen confidence in these disposal methods, Burdick said."

The Council on Plastics and Packaging in the Environment (hereafter COPPE), May, 1987.

burning plastic packaging "returns " energy "borrowed" from petroleum

"While the future of some plastics for recycling appears bright, the material’s value in the important waste-to-energy incineration process is also increasing.

Plastics are a by-product of petrochemicals, so their fuel value is very high In effect, plastic packaging ‘borrows’ the energy from petroleum, then ‘returns’ it in the incineration process. Plastics release up to four times the energy of the average mix of municipal solid waste, helping the entire fuel mix to burn more efficiently."

COPPE Quarterly, July, 1987.

new resin code proves acceptable as substitute for restrictive packaging legislation

"The plastics industry’s voluntary plastic container recycle coding system has already been adopted as an alternative to more stringent legislation in Florida, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.... Several states have postponed or backed off from restrictive packaging legislation as a result of the voluntary coding system of the Society of the Plastics Industry, at the request of legislators. The coding program, unveiled in April, 1988, is to be phased in over three years. By the end of the first year, it is estimated that nearly 30 per cent of existing bottle and container molds will carry the coding information.... To help recycling sorters, the code is molded into the bottom of the bottles with a capacity of 16 ounces or more and other containers with a capacity of eight ounces or more. The Plastic Bottle Institute of SPI, which developed the voluntary system...has developed a technical manual to help container producers with the necessary modifications."

COPPE Quarterly, Fall, 1988

burning garbage with plastics is an excellent waste reduction method

"Waste-to-energy incineration systems, where feasible and economical, offer an excellent means of reducing the amount of municipal solid waste destined for landfills.... Waste-to-energy incineration is aided by the high energy output of plastics waste. The petrochemicals used to produce plastic packaging, in effect, are retained as ‘borrowed energy’ to be used again as fuel in energy recovery. Plastics contribute...four times more energy than the average mix of municipal solid waste.

Because of this high fuel value, plastics show great promise in energy recovery."

The Nation’s Solid Waste Crisis: An Overview, COPPE, April 1989.

to vote against incineration is to vote for landfilling

"...Yet despite the proven safety of the [waste-to-energy] technology and plastics’ role in [it], misconceptions still persist about the effect of incineration on the environment and public health. Meanwhile, a phenomenon known as NIMBY (or not-in-my-backyard) is making it difficult for many municipalities to site new [incineration] facilities. This freezing of the decision-making process is preventing use of a viable and promising means of waste disposal and, worse, is forcing municipalities to continue to rely on overburdened, environmentally undesirable landfills."

COPPE, April, 1989.

flow control guarantees the supply of waste for landfilling or incineration

"Flow Control – A system to guarantee the supply of waste to ultimate disposal – landfilling or incineration. Flow control ordinances should consider recycling requirements and the need to have adequate amounts of combustible materials for efficient burning of other waste."

Plastics Packaging and the Environment: A Glossary of Terms, COPPE, undated booklet, probably 1980s.

switching to reusables would threaten public health

"While reusable foodservice products are sometimes promoted as substitutes for disposables to reduce solid waste, a recent report indicates greater use of reusables would result in increased cases of foodborne disease and decreased public health.

The report, sponsored by COPPE-member Foodservice and Packaging Institute, says ‘...To remove disposables from foodservice for reasons of solid waste control is to risk increasing the incidence of foodborne illness....’"

COPPE Quarterly, Fall, 1990

banning unrecoverable products would have little effect on wasting

"‘Banning or restricting the use of paper or plastic plates, cups and containers will have a minimal effect upon the nation’s solid waste problem.’"

COPPE Quarterly, Fall, 1990

requiring recycled content in products is a mistake

"COPPE-member National Food Processors Association (NFPA) says legislation mandating the use of recycled content reduces the importance of package safety and functionality in favor of recycled content. ‘These laws fail to recognize the special functions of food packaging , and subordinate these functions to a single, misplaced priority: reduction of solid waste,’ says NFPA’s President, John Cady."

COPPE Quarterly, Winter, 1991/9

Americans are misled into thinking 50% recycling is a practical goal

After a survey COPPE funded that found 60% of Americans believe 50% of the nation’s discard supply could be recycled, COPPE Quarterly quoted a Florida recycling coordinator as saying "‘I can see how people could have those perceptions. Looking at the garbage a homeowner puts out, a large portion could be recycled if there was a market for it. But most garbage has little value and markets don’t exist for it.’" To buttress this point, they next quote the President of Keep America Beautiful, who says, "‘This is further evidence that expectations are being created for waste managers that can’t be achieved.’" After speculating that consumers get these falsely optimistic ideas from "‘the news media and entertainment industry,’" the Executive Director of COPPE says "‘There is a real need to get better, more accurate information out to the public.’" Two paragraphs later, the story states that: "‘In reality, recycling is one of the most expensive methods to manage solid waste.’" They cite J. Winston Porter, formerly Solid Waste Administrator for the USEPA, as the source for this comment.

COPPE Quarterly, Spring, 1992

recycling is both expensive and inherently limited to 33%

"‘Most recycling is proving quite costly and now is the time to look at recycling more closely and realistically,’ Dr. Porter said.

While aggressive recycling mandates of 40 to 60% have been set in several states, Dr. Porter estimates that a practical ceiling for a national recycling rate is about 33%. ‘Although recycling should be encouraged, it will be impractical for most areas to recycle even one-third of their trash,’ he said."

"US Closing in on Recycling Goal," COPE Quarterly, Winter, 1993.

cost/benefit analysis shows recycling often wastes resources

"The best place to start environmental conservation is where cost is low and benefit high, Dr. Mead said. If you go beyond the point where benefits exceed costs, you are wasting resources. Recycling, for example, is consistent with resource conservation only if the benefits of recycling exceed the costs. If recycled products are not cheaper than new products, then recycling is wasting the nation’s resources.

Environmental economics would base the government’s role in environmental protection on the existence of externalities, Dr. Mead said. Externalities are real costs (or benefits) that a polluting company does not bear.... ‘In most cases, externalities are not significant or large,’ he said. ‘They tend to be overstated and are mostly internalized by the market, often through lawsuits. They are not as the public thinks.’"

COPE Quarterly, Winter, 1993

waste is good for the economy

"A new book on solid waste management, In Defense of Garbage, by Judd Alexander [former Chairman of Keep America Beautiful], places garbage in a new light by considering it within the total use of America’s resources. Taking a distinctive perspective on the topic, the author shows how waste products actually contribute to the economy.... Published in April, the book has received many positive reviews....

In Defense of Garbage is published by Greenwood Publishing Group Inc., Westport, Conn. To obtain a copy of the book, please send your request with a check or money order in the amount of $17 to COPE."

COPE Quarterly, Spring, 1994.

if you really want to conserve resources, don’t recycle

"We recently participated in an environmental festival.... ...We were appalled at the public’s wealth of environmental misunderstanding. ...We have coined a new term for this type of sound-based, factoid-heavy understanding: eco-gibberish....

Actually, recycling is one of the least important things we can do, if our real objective is to conserve resources.

Remember the phrase ‘reduce, reuse, and recycle’? Reduce comes first for a good reason: it’s better not to create waste than to have to figure out what to do with it. And recycling, like any other form of manufacturing, uses energy and other resources while creating pollution and greenhouse gases."

Lilienfield and Rathje, Six Environmyths...,



when comparing net costs for wasting and recycling, start by excluding recyclers’ disposal fee income

In 1994 or 1995, the American Plastics Council (formerly COPE) joined with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to study system cost and energy use for six communities’ discard management systems. The purpose was to find out whether adding recycling or composting increased or decreased the overall cost of managing discards.

A summary report on their findings was released in November of 1995. According to the researchers (whose names do not appear on the study), one of the most important "Lessons Learned" was that "Waste diversion, recycling, and resource recovery programs tend to increase the cost of municipal solid waste management."

It turns out that this "lesson" derives directly from a strategic " revenues" the researchers made at the beginning of the analysis. This adjustment drastically raised the apparent net cost of recycling and composting by eliminating the biggest source of income available to them: disposal service fees, commonly known as tipping fees. The authors admit that "Financial statements [we reviewed] included revenues, such as landfill and other processing facility tip fees, designated assessments, and other fees." But in the next sentence they contrive to ignore them by creating a new accounting concept they call the "actual net cost." The only thing that makes this peculiar form of net cost "actual" is excluding the tipping fee income, or in their words: "the actual net cost (gross costs less revenues) of any Integrated Municipal Solid Waste Management system is the gross costs less only [italics added] those revenues paid into the system from the sale of recyclable materials, compost, energy, or other marketable end product."

This zeroes out all tipping fee income, which makes recycling and composting look much more expensive than they are.

Since most material recovery businesses derive substantial revenue from competing with landfills and incinerators for tipping fees, ignoring this income suggests the falsehood is deliberate and calculated.

National Renewable Energy Laboratory (hereafter NREL, November, 1995

notwithstanding the above results, trying to compare costs of wasting with costs of recycling is "inappropriate and can lead to erroneous conclusions"

"While demonstrating the used of incremental cost analysis, the [NREL] case studies also illustrate that comparing the average cost per ton of managing garbage to the average cost per ton of diversion or resource recovery programs is inappropriate and can lead to erroneous conclusions. Because many local, state, provincial, and federal planning and regulatory organizations use or suggest the use of average cost comparisons to reach conclusions on the relative costs of various programs, the importance of this lesson cannot be overstated."

NREL, November, 1995

NREL’s dual approach to cost comparisons is endorsed by the American Plastics Council’s Director of Recycling Operations

"While demonstrating the use of incremental cost analysis, the case studies also illustrate that comparing the ‘average’ cost per ton of managing garbage to the average cost per ton of diversion or resource recovery programs is inappropriate and leads to erroneous conclusions.

As a member of the [NREL] project advisory committee, I can attest to the rigorous approach used by the consultant to identify all costs associated with each MSWM activity...."

Ron Perkins, in a letter on APC letterhead transmitting the NREL study, January 24, 1996.

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