By Samuel Strait – June 10, 2016 – I think we all must remember that time in school when the custodian, janitor back when I was in school, started putting that separate garbage can near the window where we took the remains of our cafeteria school lunch to be disposed. Back then, we were only to put our empty milk containers in it because the biology teacher told us that we could “save a tree” if we recycled. Of course, young impressionable minds, we ate that kind of indoctrination right up. For me, I think it was about in the fifth grade, after seeing the custodian take the recycle can and throw it in with the rest of the garbage, that I realized that recycling might just not be what it was advertised to be.
Fast forward about twenty years, the eighties, and yes I’m that old, recycling started to hit the mainstream of consciousness in the United States with not only save a tree campaigns, but our landfills are running out of space, we are using up natural resources and will run out. I suspect that between the late eighties and the early nineties is when recycling began to take on the moral equivalent of a religion. Gone was common sense recycling and in its place came the almost breathless mantra coming from our recycling preachers that we must change our ways and embrace an ever growing list of things to be recycled. At that point the national consciousness began to buy into the notion that you were a good person if only you recycled as much as possible, bad with raised eyebrow if you didn’t. Laws, rules, and regulation began to sprout up from all of our weather vane politicians and recycling hit the big time.
While it is far from my intent to suggest that recycling should be eliminated, there comes a time when faith in a certain human activity, recycling, must be confronted with a few basic facts, in order to determine the actual value of the massive recycling program that is currently being loaded on the backs of the public in this County and others world wide. In the first place, the save a tree campaign, our landfills are filling up, and we are using up all of our resources is just so much propaganda. The paper industry grows more trees than it uses each year and has for some time. We are a large in area country and landfill space represents a tiny fraction of that space. Often former landfills are reused as parks and public spaces with none the wiser. And finally, the scare over scarce resources, has been mostly put to bed as over blown hype.
So what is some of the real story about recycling? First of all, zero waste, advertised as the solid waste solution for the ages, has not arrived as yet. Maybe sometime in the future, we will all have that little silver box on kitchen counters where we can put in a banana peel and out pops a cup of coffee, but we aren’t quite there as yet. One of recycling’s biggest problems is that the technology for it to become truly valuable isn’t here yet. As a result, some of the supposed benefits of recycling fail in the face of high costs to process the recycled material. Yes, that’s right, recycling ends up costing each and everyone of us a substantial amount of money, often 200% to 300% more than simply taking our recyclables to the land fill. It has had to be sold as “free” or a substantial savings over simple disposal in order to maintain the 35% level where it has stagnated for thirty years. The truth of the matter is that for every pound of recycling that you put in the “BLUE CAN” costs you more that double of that which you put in the”GREEN CAN”!
In our haste to feel good about something that relates to our garbage, we have forgotten to check and see if it is really a good thing. Religions are rarely questioned seriously. Small rural counties with relatively small amounts of recycling, human hands processing and long distances to recycling collection centers are all recipes for disaster. Single stream collection methods and its associated recycling contamination that is practiced in our County is probably the worst method and least effective way of handling recycling. (It is practiced here locally solely to fluff up the over all diversion rate.) That coupled with long transportation distances make for the worst case scenario for anything more than the most basic of recycling schemes required by the State. At our local DNSWMA, the thinking is that more is better and how wrong they are!
In our situation, at least 25% of our collected recyclables end up right back in the landfill after having consumed much of the cost of recycling without benefit of the reward of purchase at the manufacturer end. If the processing of the recycling at the local level leaves much of the contamination to be dealt with at the recycling center collection point, that percentage point can balloon to 40% best case scenario. Plastic, packing materials, paper, glass and many other items that are routinely collected in the DNSWMA’s programs as recyclable are discarded back to the landfill at ever growing rates, that in spite of having absorbed the entire cost of collection. These programs should be suspended. The environmental benefits are grossly overblown and the costs will continue to rise. We, here in this County, are probably the worst place to try out these experiments as we have almost none of the factors that would make any of the schemes remotely successful. Problems with our only recycler will continue to escalate until the whole process is unsustainable. We desperately need to shed the religious aspect of recycling and return to a more common sense approach.
While I have barely scratched the surface of the daunting task of making recycling resume its place in the real world, there are ways to recycle which would have the least negative impact on the local citizenry. Those that wish to recycle should educate themselves about what things can be effectively recycled, and how to go about. They must actually adhere to that education when processing their recyclables. They must also be willing to shoulder the additional cost of recycling, particularly in the form of single stream collection. It most other localities recycling costs more than regular disposal, but those that recycle should be willing to at least pay the regular disposal rate. The balance to be made up from the many pools of deposits and manufacturer collected disposal fees given to California for recycling programs when a product is purchased. Yes, there are many products, a growing list in fact, in which you pay up front when you purchase a product for the added disposal cost. Much of that additional cost is because the product is expected to be recycled.
Perhaps it is time that recycling is given a new look without all of the faith that is currently attached to it. The additional sums of money currently being wasted on marginal recycling might just be put to better use developing sound methods and technology for making it a valuable resource in the future.