Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Additional recycling thoughts

In light of yesterday's news that processing fees will exceed falling recycling revenues - thus prompting Suki Janssen to suggest to me that some hard decisions are in the future for Athens-Clarke County's recycling program, including either rate increases or a scaling back of non-traditional recycling programs - I contacted Athens-Clarke County District Eight Commissioner Kelly Girtz. Girtz has long been a proponent of an expanded recycling effort in order to make the community reach the 'Zero Waste' goal, and he shared some thoughts that I'll just post verbatim here ...

I've been following the recycling markets story for a few weeks, and even used the recent NY Times piece for a case study of the complexities of supply-and-demand in the high school Econ class I teach. Recycling professionals have mentioned that the market was over-inflated at its peak, so this downturn in markets might be seen as perhaps an over-correction. Whatever the vagaries of the market last week, today or next year, some core ideas should be at the center of our conversation about production and recycling.

A key issue that policy-makers (ideally on a state or national level) should be discussing is the issue of producer responsibility for products and their packaging. As long as we produce and consume so much paper, plastic, metal and glass material, we are going to have to find something to do with it, whether it is landfilling, down-cycling, littering, recycling or reusing. Manufacturers should be asked to plan from the start how a product or package can be fully recycled. Why is it even permissable to produce material that cannot easily be recycled? Those microscopic 3s, 4s, and 5s in the little "recycle me" triangles on plastics are like a promise unfulfilled (why do you taunt me so, oh plastic clamshell?). To continue our pattern of end-of-the-line manufacturing is to ask for continued trouble.

My first brush with this issue was during a skirmish in the music industry in the '80s when I was a clerk in a record store. Compact discs sold in the U.S. came in what the industry termed "longboxes" - cardboard sleeves wrapped in plastic that would stand up in bins designed for LPs. It was only through public outcry and lots of wrangling that the industry agreed to eliminate this superfluous packaging (notably, long after their European counterparts). Trust me, the cash you made on Ebay selling your Neil Young longboxes still isn't worth the cost of all the material that went to waste.

These days, it is hard for me not to notice all the extra crap littering our stores. Next time you are out shopping for tools, toys, clothes, or whatnot, check out the volume of packaging: shrink wrap, cardboard inserts, hard plastic shells, styrofoam backing, etc., etc., etc. All of this stuff is extractive - largely from trees and crude oil. As long as this is the norm, we are going to have the back-end problems now plaguing us as we seek markets for recyclables. If instead, producers have to be responsible for taking back the waste they wrought, or paying someone else to take it back, we may begin to see broader reform and diminishing angst over what to do with all the stuff piling up in our homes, landfills and recycling centers.

Back to the local issue, though - how do we operate right now with falling prices for the recyclables we collect? Well, we sure don't return to dumping it in a hole in the ground. We may have to warehouse some of the material for a time, and suck-up the cost. Even in immediate monetary terms, the community will still benefit, as landfilling costs $42 a ton, much more than handling recyclables, even if we don't make the profits we saw over the last few years. We may also modify the recycling system to make it more effiient and more effective. A consideration under discussion is single-stream processing, which could lower processing costs. In addition, we know that many markets are cyclical, and will recover in time. The water and energy savings found in recycling materials rather than using virgin commodities also remain in place.

So, to everyone: please continue to recycle, but be mindful of materials you consume from the front-end. Use a reuseable coffee cup instead of a paper cup. Refill that water jug rather than buying a bottle of water. Limit printer paper by printing on the reverse side. Carry cloth bags to the grocery store. Buy used stuff. And if your favorite gadget seems padded with extra packaging, send a quick email to the company asking them to cut back.


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