Recycling has for decades been a cornerstone of the environmental movement. As it got popular, businesses and municipalities began to embrace the concept in the 1980s as new clean air and water regulations forced closure of old, leaky dumps. Recycling in the US created over 1.5 million jobs, through 60,000 companies and 40,000 government programs with the impact of $300 billion in sales for the industry.
First it was local…
To recall what small-scale, local recycling used to be not that long ago, Urban Ore, the feisty Berkeley reuse company, reminds us, “the small businesses and non-profit enterprises that previously handled “end-of-life” for electronic equipment did more than simply repair, refurbish or recycle it. They also provided employment and training to workers from disadvantaged communities, encouraging young people to learn skills and computer literacy. They sold low cost machines to schools, community organizations and families, enabling volunteers to provide thousands of hours annually for training youth and under-employed residents.” Now ever-larger companies benefit from poorly-planned electronic scrap laws favoring large businesses, capitalizing on the rapid obsolescence of digital products.
What is it with the war on jobs poor people depend on? Increasingly there’s no place in our communities for folks wanting to make money by collecting & redeeming deposits on bottles and cans. CalRecycle, the state recycling agency, in January admitted that it now has a $529 million surplus because so many Californians live in “recycling deserts” with no convenient options for eco-friendly folks to get their nickel & dime deposits back on beverage containers, so they just send them out with other recyclables on trash pickup day. Beverage recycling rates have declined for 8 years as many recycling centers have closed statewide due to market woes and climbing land prices. The system seems nearly broken but at least State Senator Wieckowski (Fremont) is investigating CalRecycle and its dubious accounting practices.
Recycling scales up (and out)
With landfill space increasingly scarce and pricey, and with tighter domestic clean air rules for incinerators, corporate and government officials promoted recycling in the 1980s as a way to reduce the waste stream and even earn money. As China’s economy was starting to boom it began to take discards, especially paper and plastics, from more industrialized countries and turn them into new products and packaging for its home and export markets. By 2017, China was buying over half the world’s mixed paper waste, with the U.S. shipping 15 million tons of mixed paper there per year.
But in early 2018 China banned 24 grades of waste materials, including mixed paper and post-consumer plastics, and insisted on far less contaminants in other materials they did import. SE Asian countries briefly opened imports, but now these U.S. waste products have no value and just pile up. At least the disruption of export markets speeded regulation of plastic waste: 186 countries agreed to place restrictions on the international movement of plastic waste in 2019, and clearly the trade is unsavory. News of the Pacific Ocean “plastic gyre” of floating plastics (70% eventually sinks) also helped focus attention on the problems of plastics.
• Maybe we should all have to live with the products and trash we produce, the detritus of our consumer society’s throwaways, instead of sending everything “away”?
If countries increasingly have to deal with their own waste, corporate players are stepping up to sell solutions. “Extended Producer Responsibility” (EPR), a classicgreenwashing name, is modeled on Scandinavian laws but has been Americanized to benefit beverage producers and the big-business trash industries chasing the most valuable recyclables and squeezing out smaller, established community recyclers. Urban Ore has been central in outing this dangerous trend.
Big trash hauling companies make much more from their monopoly contracts with town & cities by discarding, rather than recycling, and also kick back some of their fees to cities, which can use the money. They do all they can to make traditional recycling appear uneconomical and shaky, so that EPR contracts appear to be better deals, ushering in privatization. The tempting sales pitch for EPRs is that “producers” will be held responsible for dealing with products & packaging after consumers are done with items, and thus have an incentive to design higher quality, more recyclable products using less resources and packaging. Recycling costs would be built into prices, pleasing taxpayers, garbage ratepayers and local governments.
As Urban Ore reveals, it’s all a shell game: “Actually EPR producers want monopoly control of the recovery system. Then they hire smaller ‘Stewardship’ organizations to get the job done cheaply… No existing EPR regulations require redesign. Stupid products like plastic straws can continue to be made. Thus in EPR ‘responsibility’ becomes permission to pollute.” This has played out previously in British Columbia in scary fashion: “The results: a hostile takeover of the recycling industry… Fully developed EPR can be a way for manufacturers to keep making unrecyclable products, and to avoid oversight.”
EPR seems like a classic case of modern “disruption” capitalism, since consumers do the feel-good chores of recycling beverage containers, forfeiting most of the deposits they’ve paid, while ever-larger companies — with minimal investment, labor or materials costs — scoop up the most profitable recyclables in a market already reeling from huge changes in the overseas markets.
As fossil fuel companies watch (and fight) the rise of regulation, hybrids & all-electric vehicles, they also seek to hedge their bets and use “their” oil & gas to pivot and become petrochemicals companies. As recycling pioneer Gretchen Brewer of San Diego warned, “Remember that the plastics industry is the petroleum industry, is the chemical industry, is the pharmaceutical industry, is the weapons industry, is the military-industrial complex.”
Every day is trash day
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle – of course! Be careful about what you buy, buy what you can reuse and repair, buy what you can recycle. Get back to buying in bulk and reusing bags & containers. Cut way down on single-use plastics you bring home. On the national level let’s fix the misleading number coding on containers, consumer plastics and packaging which implies that these are recyclable when very few really are. Be aware: more & more plastic creeps into the waste stream all the time, ending up in landfills, rivers & oceans — plastic labels on aluminum cans, plus plastic-aluminum foil hybrids that contaminate a valuable recyclable metal; the flood of plastics we’ve used & tossed in the Covid era, plastic bags, containers & other products…
Stay tuned & do what you can.