Bulging at the Waste

Stepping through the urban tumbleweed of paper, plastic water jugs, and shards of glass at the Berkeley recycling facility, you begin to see what these people are up against. On an average day, trucks will unload about 21 tons of would-be trash into a facility half the size of a football field. Then the sorting begins: Nine people work all day translating the mountains of refuse into marketable materials.
Americans generated over 230 million tons of waste in 2000. Of that, about 54 million tons were recycled, much of it set aside by residents, picked up in trucks, and processed through facilities like Berkeley’s. Another 16 tons were composted. But despite our best efforts, we’re clearly being outrun by garbage. The 160 million tons of garbage we sent to landfills that year will remain with us far longer than we imagine; elaborate (and often futile) technologies designed to discourage groundwater and air pollution have the paradoxical effect of allowing even the most transient garbage, like newspapers or hot dogs, to survive a decade or longer in a landfill. The trash we incinerate— about 20 million tons—may return in the form of cancer-causing dioxins and ash. Whatever we do with our waste, there is no such thing as throwing it “away.”
Like many popular environmental movements, modern recycling caught on around the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970. Most early efforts were drop-off stations for paper, cans, and bottles. Without city subsidies, proceeds couldn’t cover expenses; programs were volunteer-run to divert waste, not to make a profit. In 1973, the Ecology Center became one of the first community groups to do curbside pick-ups, beginning with a monthly newspaper collection. This year, the Center celebrates the 30th anniversary of one of the longest-running curbside programs in the country.
In the ’80s, the stench of garbage became hard to ignore. Landfills, most lacking seepage-preventing liners, had filled up. In 1987, the EPA’s Resource Conservation and Recovery Act set a deadline for the closure of small unlined landfills, forcing many out of business and driving up fees at others. The emblematic event of that decade was the 1987 voyage of the barge Mobro 4000, which cruised for seven months along the Atlantic seaboard, down into the Gulf of Mexico, through the Bahamas, and all the way back to Brooklyn carrying 3,299 tons of garbage no one would take. When the cargo was incinerated, it left 430 tons of ash in the Islip landfill.
To divert more recyclables from the waste stream, cities began funding curbside pick-up programs. This was a public relations boon for large garbage haulers and landfill operators like Waste Management Inc. and BFI, which already dominated the industry in many states. Both companies had spent much of the ’80s fighting antitrust and price-fixing allegations, including the ’87 grand jury conviction in what prosecutors called “the largest criminal antitrust case in California history.” BFI and WMI embraced the curbside programs as a way to spruce up their images, says Peter Anderson, who directs the Center for Competitive Waste Industry. By 1998, curbside programs had grown from a handful of community efforts to about 9,000 pick-up programs and 12,000 drop-off centers, by the EPA’s count.
During the ’90s, recycling became a national pastime. As schools across the country implanted the new three R’s—reduce, reuse, recycle—into the minds of the nation’s youth, letter-writing campaigns persuaded McDonald’s to discontinue its polystyrene packaging, and Coke to pledge 25 percent recycled content in its drink bottles (a promise it never kept, later settling for a 10 percent goal, which it has met in some products). In 1989, the EPA set a 25 percent goal for municipal recycling nationwide; over the next few years, a flurry of legislation promoted institutionalization of waste reduction. With the increase in curbside programs came consolidation of the industry: Waste Management, Inc. now dominates, with 20 million residential customers. The same company also operates the nation’s largest single share of landfills, as well as 16 trash incinerators. Both operations are more lucrative than recycling, leading some to charge that the company has little financial incentive to ramp up recycling efforts.
National recycling rates climbed from 14 percent in 1990 to an estimated 23 percent in 2000. The increase was especially dramatic in California, where, in 1989, Governor George Deukmejian signed AB 939, Senator Byron Scher’s landmark legislation requiring every county and city in California to divert 50 percent of its waste by 2000. According to one estimate by the editor of Resource Recycling, more Americans recycle than vote.
But the recycling movement seems to have reached a plateau. Between 1990 and 1995, Americans made a seven percent jump in recycling of household wastes like bottles, cans, and newspaper. But over the next five years, that rate increased less than two percent. Meanwhile, we generate almost exactly as much garbage as we did a decade ago: four and a half pounds a day each, by the EPA’s count. After a decade of waste reduction education, we’re still sending over three of those pounds to the landfill or the dump.
You could argue that recycling has actually worked against waste reduction. With the advent of recycling programs, particularly city-sponsored curbside pick-ups, consumers began looking to recyclers—rather than to Coke or McDonald’s—for solutions. If your program failed to pick up juice boxes, well, that was a problem with the curbside collector, not the juice box.
In 1994 Tri-CED recycling, a nonprofit curbside program, won an eight-year contract with the city of Hayward. Among the conditions was that Tri-CED pick up polystyrene, a virtually immortal plastic most people know as Styrofoam. “The city of Hayward made it a requirement when we bid on it,” explains Richard Valle, Tri-CED’s director. Encouraged by a fledgling polystyrene recycling facility, city officials were convinced residential polystyrene could have a second life as packing peanuts.
But the residential polystyrene Tri-CED collected came out of the same bin as other recyclables, and it was often contaminated with shards of glass. After a few months, the polystyrene facility began rejecting the bales, which left Tri-CED in a bind. “It had been conveyed to the customers that we picked [polystyrene] up from the inception of the program,” recalls Valle. “Residents had become accustomed to it.” Having told residents that polystyrene was recyclable, and holding out the hope that another polystyrene recycler might one day materialize, the city council was reluctant to take it off the pick-up list. So, every year, Tri-CED writes a letter to the Hayward city council requesting permission to landfill all the polystyrene it collects, and every year the city council complies. “We landfill about thirty 250-pound bales every six months,” Valle says.
It’s the kind of conundrum one faces in an industry where supply—not demand —is the starting point. City officials and residents may pressure their curbside programs to collect a broad array of materials as efficiently as possible, but it’s up to the operators to get the stuff recycled.
“There’s a misconception that the more kinds of things you pick up at the curb, the more advanced you are,” explains Dave Williamson, who runs curbside recycling for the Berkeley Ecology Center. In fact, picking up more materials may not result in more efficient recycling: “Juice boxes, multi-layered packaging, a lot of these are collected at the curb and they’re only really marginally recycled.” The more complex a product, the harder it is to isolate its recyclable parts. Similarly, a more complex load—like one containing newspaper, glossy magazines, and thick stock white office paper—is a far more expensive recycling project than, say, three separate piles of sorted paper. Enough of any one isolated material will find a buyer; the more mixed your load, the lower the price you’ll get.
Paper, one of the first materials to be recycled en masse, makes up the lion’s share—about 80 percent—of what residents and businesses put out for recycling. It’s also a big chunk of the waste stream: according to the EPA, most landfills contain about 40 percent paper. But not all papers are created equal. “I think people tend to believe that because things get picked up at curbside, [the paper they buy] has recycled content,” says Sue Kinsella, director of Conservatree. “They don’t know that putting newsprint out doesn’t translate into office paper.” Only a small percentage of office paper on the market contains post-consumer recycled content, despite the approximately 600,000 tons of office paper that get recycled each year (about half of what’s used in offices). A mixed paper load is more likely to “downcycle,” to come back as something less valuable and less recyclable than its first incarnation. This is an argument many operators make against single-streaming (see page 16), which further complicates sorting by allowing residents to combine paper with other recyclables.
While recycled aluminum and glass reliably make it back to grocery store shelves, the plastic you put on the curb faces an even messier future than paper: plastic bottles, which most curbside programs now collect, most often reincarnate not as bottles, but as synthetic fleece and plastic lumber—none of which is, in turn, recyclable. Almost every plastic juice bottle on the market is made primarily from virgin plastic (see page 20), thus representing all the environmental and human health costs of a petroleum-based, non-biodegradable product. “There’s only so much you can do with reused plastics,” says Bob Besso, who runs San Francisco’s curbside program for Sunset Scavenger. “And once it’s recycled, it’s not like it’s coming back in the same form, like tin or aluminum containers do.”
That’s a bitter pill to swallow for curbside operators like Williamson, who has watched plastic bottles replace recyclables like glass and aluminum over the years. At the Berkeley recycling facility, he and I watched as a team of sorters worked the conveyer belt. At the start of the line two men, their hands a blur, weeded garbage or “residuals” out of the line. Next busiest was the plastics guy who quickly diverted plastic bottles—anything with a 1 or 2 and a base wider than its neck—into a chute by his side. To his right, a revolving magnet pulled the tin cans, with an occasional BANG… BANG…BANG. Near the end of the line, just before the eddy separator sucks up aluminum cans, a glass sorter leisurely pulled out a bottle here and there. Ten years ago, says Williamson, that glass sorter would have been the busiest guy on the line. “The future is plastics!” he jibes.
For a long time, the Ecology Center curbside operators resisted adding plastics to the pick-up, in the belief that collecting plastics gave the false impression that they were recyclable. But eventually, residents’ demand prevailed. “Refusing to take plastics didn’t get people to stop buying them,” recalls recycling consultant Ruth Abbe. “They just got pissed off.” Berkeley still collects only #1 and #2, a picky operation compared to San Francisco’s, where operators collect the full range of plastic bottles labeled one through seven, even though some of those breeds will never have another life: Polystyrene (#6) is difficult to find a market for, and PVC (#3) is so toxic that recycling it, while technically feasible, is considered hazardous to human health.
Professional recyclers like Williamson and San Francisco’s Bob Besso may laud new municipal composting programs, for example, or argue the virtues or evils of single-streaming, but all agree that recycling, for most materials, is hardly a solution. “Recycling is a last chance,” says Besso. “It’s not something you should bank on.”
Since AB 939 became law, nearly every city and county in California has met the 50 percent waste reduction mandate. San Francisco and Berkeley claim 51 percent diversion, Los Angeles, 60 percent, and the Humboldt town of Blue Lake (pop. 1,160), 91 percent. Creative accounting helps: thrift shop drop-offs qualify as diversion, as do yard sales and—most gallingly to many environmentalists—“waste to energy” plants, or incinerators (see page 24). Many cities are taking the diversion mandate much farther. Alameda and San Francisco have both set 75 percent waste reduction goal for 2010 and a 100 percent “zero-waste” goal for 2020.
Meanwhile, some cities, like Mayor Bloomberg’s New York, have cut curbside programs altogether, claiming they’re simply too expensive to sustain. Bloomberg’s right, to a certain skewed logic: It’s still cheaper to dump garbage into a landfill than to reuse or recycle it. But that calculation fails to consider the enormous costs that a throw-away culture incurs along the way. Recycling an aluminum can takes 96 percent less energy than making a can from virgin aluminum. Making water bottles of virgin plastic requires four to eight times the energy of a recycled plastic bottle. Whether it’s bauxite mining (for aluminum cans) or petroleum processing (for plastic containers), water use, water and air pollution, and other environmental costs of producing materials from scratch make recycling look cheap.
In San Francisco, city officials are considering making recycling mandatory with fines for households and businesses that don’t recycle, combined with enforcement to help the city meet its goals. But zero waste is nothing more than a pipe dream as long as residents continue to purchase and dispose of non-recyclable, non-reusable goods. “There shouldn’t be anything on the market that’s unrecyclable,” says Besso.
The real responsibility to close the loop, zero-waste proponents argue, belongs with the manufacturer. Bill Sheehan, founder of the GrassRoots Recycling Network and the grandfather of the “zero-waste” movement, has long argued that until manufacturers feel the pressure to dispose of their products, there will be no end to landfills—that waste, essentially, is a problem of design. “Recycling could be self-sustaining if manufacturers made things that were recyclable,” says Sheehan, who recently left the GRRN to found a new organization focused on consumption and production policy, called the Product Project. “Instead, the recycling industry constantly has to keep up with new materials that make municipal recycling almost impossible. It makes you crazy. As long as the taxpayer pays to dispose of product waste [the packaging and consumer goods that compose 75 percent of consumer waste], there’s no incentive to make things less toxic, less overpackaged. It’s like welfare for corporations.”
“Extended producer responsibility” is already mainstream in Europe, where programs like Germany’s Green Dot system force manufacturers to either take back their packaging or contribute to the national recycling program on the basis of how much packaging they produce. The incentive seems to have worked: according to one study, 80 percent of German manufacturers moved to “optimize” packaging in the first two years of the program.
Here, California and eight other states require newspaper to contain some percentage of post-consumer recycled content. Most recently, Governor Gray Davis signed California’s SB 20, which targets high-tech waste (see page 21). It’s a start, says Sheehan, at getting manufacturers to reclaim products at the end of their lives. “You don’t want to take back a computer monitor with nine pounds of lead?” jokes Sheehan. “Well, hello! Welcome to the real world of what municipalities have been dealing with for decades.”

Comments are closed.