So how did we get here? As I noted in my last couple of posts, recycling rates do have value as a benchmarking tool. So how did we get to a point where folks are decrying recycling rates and calling for their end? This is really a case of the road to Hell being paved with good intentions.
A lot of this history dates back to the recycling paradigm shift that occurred in the 1980’s and 1990’s. In my first Max-R post, I talked about how recycling is a manufacturing process. Back before the paradigm shift, manufacturing mills really controlled the demand side of things. If they were running low on supply and needed more “scrap paper” to supply the mill, they would simply raise prices. Special collections (think boy scout newspaper drive) would happen in order to fill that demand. Collections occurred until a sufficient tonnage of material was supplied to the mills, and then the collection drives ended until the next time one was needed. Metrics were simple. If the mill got the tonnage they needed, they were happy. And if the civic groups doing the collection met their financial goals, or even just their community engagement goals, they were happy.
In the 1980s and 1990s, recycling changed. Recycling stopped being about supplying the mill, but rather became more of an issue of not supplying the landfill. Recycling became a centerpiece of an integrated solid waste plan. At that time, there were quite a number of municipal landfills that were nearing the end of their life, and especially in densely populated areas in the Northeast, a decreasing amount of space in which to site new ones. The lack of landfill space became a “crisis”, public perception of which culminated with the Mobro garbage barge.
Whenever you have a crisis, a few things start to happen. Activists start to mobilize. People demand action. Politicians start to rush through legislation to show they are on top of the issue. You also have networking. Advocates, bureaucrats, and politicians from different regions start talking to each other. When they do, you get a phenomenon that can only be described as some latent feeling of legislative inadequacy – “my legislation is bigger and more robust than your regulation”. People forget how to even use the tools they have. They only know they need a bigger one. Things start to take on a life of their own. That was the case with recycling.
That era saw some of the largest growth in the number of recycling programs as well as an explosion of recycling mandates and regulations. We started to see requirements that recycling rates increase from single digits and teen all the way up to 50%. All sounds positive so far right? Actually, it is somewhere into this process that I think things started to fall apart for recycling rates.
As any basic economics class will teach you, the key to a healthy industry is finding the proper balance between supply and demand. Somewhere in the late 90s and 2000s, we completely lost it. We shifted the entire focus of recycling onto mandating the collection of “supply” and very little onto demand. It didn’t matter if mills wanted our stuff or if anyone was buying their stuff (or if it did matter it was secondary). Recycling advocates were on a crusade to keep it out of the landfill.
It was in this process that recycling rates started to get misused and abused. Programs started to take a back seat to numbers. Someone set an ambitious target number and then the attention shifted to meeting it at any cost. It has gotten to the point where in far too many cases, the numbers don’t mean anything anymore. It’s not just a case of systems that allow far too many wild and unsubstantiated volume-based estimates (although that is a HUGE problem). It’s that in far too many cases the fundamental methodology can barely be trusted.
One way we got there is by trying to reconcile waste reduction. As I mentioned in a previous post, at some point, some types of waste reduction will take recyclables out of the system and cause your recycling rate to drop. If you are just using recycling rates as a benchmarking tool, that is fine and something you can show. However, when you use recycling rates as compliance mandates, or the only goal by which your program success is measured, declining recycling rates become a really big problem. Whether you leave grass clippings on a lawn to mulch or rake them up to ship them to a composting facility can make the difference in hundreds of tons a year of recycling credit. Add other generally-positive things like double-sided copying and product light-weighting (e.g. there is less aluminum in an aluminum can now than there was years ago), and you could have a full-on compliance crisis on your hands. So how do you deal with this? Reducing your compliance goal isn’t really a viable option. Remember that back in the latent legislative feeling of inadequacy phase of all this, a lot of advocates, politicians, and even states staked their reputation on having the biggest and most robust legislation.
So, to try to reconcile this and ensure that you don’t have declining percentages, some folks changed from having recycling % goals to having “diversion” % goals or “zero waste” percentage goals. The problem is, how do you measure what you don’t generate? Let’s take it to an extreme. I could have gone to a fast food restaurant, and gotten a couple of their extra-mongo burgers, an extreme-sized fries, a vat-sized drink, some sort of pre-wrapped desert, and whatever decorative bag or box they packaged all that up in for me to take out. I didn’t, let’s say because I think their food is bogus, or I was in the mood for home-made leftovers instead. Or maybe I was just short on cash that day. Do I still get to call that waste reduction, because I could have legitimately generated that waste? What triggers our ability to call that waste reduction and get credit for it?
Let’s take something like electronic forms, a key to our “paperless offices,” and something that a few states allow to be included in “recycling” or “diversion” percentages. To be fair, in some cases electronic forms do lead to true paper reduction. Few people print out an entire electronic phone book. However, I have seen far too many cases in which electronic forms don’t do any paper reduction. They just shift the burden of who prints the form and how accessible it is. So now, you are suddenly in a situation where someone on a campus, or in a town or business is claiming waste reduction credit for making that form electronic, but not having to prove whether or not that form ever gets printed in order to do so. Then, that same form is printed by someone else on campus or in that town or business. Then it is recycled. So now you are double-counting and getting double diversion for the same form. That is a real problem, both because it makes apples to apples comparisons difficult, and because it tends to undermine legitimate recycling and composting efforts.
The other unfortunate trend of using recycling rates for compliance is that people stop worrying about quality and end markets. Want to boost your recycling rate to meet your compliance goal? Stop worrying about quality. Dump contaminated stuff into your recycling and don’t ever discount all the extra that the mill has to throw away. After all, that is their problem now, not yours right? Somehow, we have created a system where the mills have become the enemy if God forbid their operational realities in any way inhibit us from reaching our 100% diversion/zero waste goals. That is a HUGE problem because if we make it too difficult for folks to use recycled materials they will at some point switch back to virgin materials.
Another problem with recycling rates is that we have never fully figured out how to incorporate waste to energy and beneficial use into the metric. That is a huge problem when it comes to the “compliance at any cost” side of recycling. If you “recycle” materials by using them as part of the daily cover in a landfill, is that recycling? If you say no, many states are going to have to radically change their construction & demolition waste recycling numbers. Why is it that wood waste that is shipped to a C&D recycling processing but then ultimately ends up in a burner used as fuel is counted as recycling, but that if you shipped the same material directly to a waste-to-energy facility, it is counted as trash? Should using ground glass in road base counted the same as bottle-to-bottle glass recycling programs? Those are all legitimate questions, but are all completely cast aside when trying to eke out as many recycling % points as possible before submitting that next compliance report.
In the early 1990’s, New Yorker magazine ran a wonderful cartoon called “Recycling in Hell” in which someone had to navigate an infinite number of different categories in order to find out which bin to put their stuff in. Now almost 20 years later, after decades of well-intentioned abuses and misuses of recycling rates, I worry that we have arrived in that same place, albeit for a very different reason.