Recyclers Are the True Conservatives
By Daniel Knapp, Ph.D.


Democratic politicians lost to Republican politicians in the November elections, but does that mean the environment has to take a beating? Maybe, but if we environmentalists stay cool enough to play one of the strongest cards in our hand, we may be able to make some big gains.

Republicans don't own the philosophy of conservativism any more than Democrats own liberalism. Environmentalism, for example, has a deeply conservative streak derived from our view of nature. The natural world doesn't waste; it conserves. Discarded animal and vegetable matter never goes to waste. It is recovered by natural cleanup crews and processes and is converted into the next generation of resources. Occasional catastrophes wipe out species.

To avoid being a (further) natural catastrophe, we humans need to be conservative. Establishing wilderness areas is conservative because it preserves ancient species that otherwise might be irretrievably lost. Environmentalists are often called conservationists, and conservation is conservative. We environmentalists are conservative because we follow nature's conventions.

It seems, therefore, that a share of recent conservative electoral victories could plausibly belong to environmentalists. We should at least consider staking a claim. If the victory belongs to us, too, then we should have an enhanced say in what gets pruned from government.

From a conservationist's point of view, there are some parts of government that could stand some pruning. How much money could we save by shutting down the government's promotion of waste-to-energy incinerators, for example? Burning garbage competes with recycling and has been a dangerous failure in city after city. Nevertheless, budgets for the Department of Energy and the EPA still commit substantial money to developing waste-to-energy. A conservative approach that would also be optimal environmentally would be to cut off the entitlements and subsidies installed by past politicians from both major parties for this unnecessary and wasteful industry. Simply cutting out these subsidies will indirectly stimulate recycling, the truly conservative approach to materials conservation.

Benefits of this "tough love" conservative pruning don't stop with reducing waste and channeling refined resources back into production. It also saves tax money, another conservative value. And it will open up the disposal marketplace still further to competition (freeing markets - yet another conservative cornerstone), allowing recycling to take fuller advantage of its overall lower costs.

I've been in the reuse and recycling business seven days a week, 360 days a year, for fourteen years. I can testify from personal experience that many reuse and recycling enterprises are totally conservative, or as totally conservative as their operators can make them.

True recyclers hate to waste anything. Urban Ore surveyed other recycling operations in our immediate vicinity in 1992. All the businesses we contacted were locally owned, but they were a mix of proprietorships, for-profit and not-for-profit corporations, and there was also one municipal corporation. No operator estimated sending to landfill more than 3% of the combined 85,000 tons handled in 1992. That's near-total recycling, near zero waste from this segment of the economy, and it is significant because all companies contacted handle things that used to go to landfill. It is clear that these companies have developed reliable, practical ways to change what used to be wastes into resources. The materials conserved are not in the landfill or in the atmosphere, they're still usefully circulating in the economy.

The conservative victors after the November election say they're fed up with waste. I say that's great, and welcome aboard! We recyclers and environmentalists got fed up with waste a long time ago. We got so fed up with waste, we gave up careers and former lives to throw ourselves into creating self-reliant businesses that conserve things rather than waste them. Then we went into head-to-head competition with the economic structure that creates and profits from waste, and we've been winning some significant victories.

Garbage is down in many parts of the country. Urban Ore is in Alameda County, where garbage plummeted 23% from 1990 to 1993, according to the Alameda County Recycling Board. All around us are landfills and refuse transfer stations that are experiencing the same disastrous decline in market share. Waste Management, Inc., the largest garbage company in the world, saw its stock price cut in half in 1992 as a direct result of the success of thousands of small materials recovery businesses. The landfill "crisis" of a few years ago has changed to a landfill glut. After rising to record highs, tipping fees are diving in many parts of the country as landfills and incinerators find themselves short of garbage. Want to see waste really cut to the bone? Give real recyclers even more control over the discard management system. We know how to conserve much more than we are doing now. Break up the solid waste establishment, which now controls decision-making and the flow of funding in such a way as to protect and preserve the industry that manufactures waste from our discards, and then charges us an arm and a leg to put it "safely away." Withdrawing their subsidies is a good first step.

Want program efficiency, more bang for the buck? Let's ask people who have run something. Recycling pioneers started out more than two decades ago loading glass by hand into barrels and hauling it by the pickup load to distant markets. Today many of the same people broker shiploads of postconsumer material bound for markets all over the world. These people learned by doing: they drove trucks, fixed them, set up computer systems, planned routes, negotiated collection contracts and materials sales, and took on a thousand other real-world tasks. Most working recyclers, even the ones like me who started later, can tell the same story. The work ethic is strong among recyclers. So is thrift - knowing how to make do with few resources.

Want to talk about making money? In the U.S. alone, recyclers in just one of twelve recoverable commodity groups (metals) sold $19 billion worth of product in 1993. The whole garbage industry in 1993 brought in only a few billion dollars more. Throw in the added value from the other eleven commodity groups - from paper to compost, and reusables to textiles - and it becomes clear that the recovered-materials economy is already much bigger than the waste economy.

Reusers and recyclers are deeply conservative, and they are also environmentalists. There is no contradiction between the two terms. Recyclers mimic nature by recirculating materials instead of encapsulating them or destroying them. Like nature, we conserve by refining and reusing. By defining for the public the environmental basis for conservatism, we will help divert citizens from the unproductive and dangerous class and ethnic warfare into which they are currently being led by cynical leaders, some of whom got elected under the banner of conservatism.

It is not conservative to make war. War wastes the very landscape, along with vast quantities of resources.

This is a deeply peaceful strategy, a healing strategy. If there's one thing the earth needs now, it's healers, because a lot of damage needs to be repaired.

Healers are conservative, too.

[Dr. Knapp has a Ph.D. in sociology and taught at the university level for several years. Now he is the founder and general manager of Urban OreŽ, a for-profit corporation in Berkeley, California. The company diverts reusable materials from waste and also salvages discards from the city's transfer station, then sells them as-is for reuse. Urban Ore's mission is to End the Age of Waste.]

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