What happened to our commitment to recycling? To keeping waste out of landfills? To finding a better way? Sure, times are tough. The economy, we are told, is as bad as during the Great Depression—well, maybe not quite as bad, but pretty close. Unemployment has not reached the 25% level of those times, and we hope it won’t. We have a safety net of sorts protecting some of our citizens, unlike the 1930s.
As we have all read, recycling programs are taking a hit for a variety of reasons: Local governments are cutting costs any way they can; private sector processors have stopped accepting material because they cannot unload the finished product at any price; other processors have stopped accepting material because the value of the finished product is no longer enough to cover their costs and make a profit. So where is our collective commitment?
Years ago, before most of us got into this business, there were very few rules on how we disposed of our waste. Some states were more progressive, but it was not until RCRA and its Subtitle D that we began universally, to see our role as environmental stewards. Economic conditions vary around the country, and we are always looking for more efficient (read “cheaper”) ways of doing this business. With very few exceptions, no one continues to challenge the RCRA requirements or not follow them.
Some states have adopted rules on recycling. We call these rules recycling goals. Some have more teeth than others, but it is a start. But because these are reported as goals, not regulations, many communities feel less pressure to continue in the face of hard economic conditions. Today, some states are relaxing their recycling or diversion requirements. So, what happened to our commitment to the environment?
One of the common business models for accomplishing recycling is a contract in which the government pays for the collection of the material but then shares in the net revenue of the finished product sales. There is often no direct payment for the materials’ processing. Certainly there are variations, but we are seeing these economic conditions leave private businesses with no revenue to pay the cost of processing; no net revenue to share; no place to send the finished product. Maybe it’s time to rethink the business model.
What if…the cost of processing were fully covered by the local government in the first place? What if the value of the finished product was fully recognized and shared by the parties? In normal times (whatever that means) the net cost/revenue to each party might be about the same; in difficult times, there should be no disincentive for the processor, except where to send the finished product. That issue could be handled with short-term warehouse storage, perhaps. Sure, the processor’s risk would be reduced with most of it shifted to the public sector. For many regulatory-driven programs, that may be where the risk belongs. The contractor is only being asked to perform the “rowing” while the public “steers” the boat. In very good times, the public’s benefit would (should) be increased over normal times. In the overall scheme of things, the benefits and costs to each should be nearly the same as it is today. In addition, the processor would be able to assure continued employment even during difficult times, something that is a good public benefit and would reduce, however so slightly, the public’s cost of unemployment insurance that might be paid to the employees of a company driven out of business by a recession.
Are we serious about recycling? Or are we fair weather recyclers? Why are we recycling at all? When many of us were children, recycling happened due to the value of specific materials. In my town, the Boy Scouts collected newspaper and were reasonably paid for the product, helping their scouting programs. Later, many communities decided that recycling was a way to reduce the pressure on landfills, deferring the day of reckoning when a new landfill had to be developed.
Today (well, maybe yesterday) the general sentiment is that recycling is a good thing to do for the environment, not only keeping waste out of the landfill, but also preserving virgin materials that would otherwise be used.
As we rethink the business model on recycling, maybe it’s time also to rethink our collective environmental commitment. The United States was once a world leader in environmental stewardship. Are we still? What happened to our commitment?
It’s too easy to say, “It’s the economy stupid!”