A publication of Work On Waste USA, Inc., 82 Judson, Canton, NY 13617 315-379-9200 August 1992
We were only a small band of recycling activists in 1982 when we used a citizens initiative to block Berkeleys proposed mass-burn incinerator. We convinced voters that our growing recycling businesses would be stopped in their tracks if the incinerator took away our supply of materials. Our slogan was Give Recycling a Chance!.
Of course, we covered the financial and toxics bases, too, but in retrospect it seems the recycling issues was decisive. Using the same logic, and sometimes the same slogan, we defeated five more serious incinerator proposals in our area during the 1980s. They were for plants proposed for Brisbane; Bryan Canyon; Redwood City; Fremont/Newark; and West Contra Costa County. Right now there are no garbage incinerators in our area, and only three are operating in the state. [In 1985, 35 incinerators were planned.]
As we predicted, the number and diversity of recycling enterprises grew with each burner defeat. After all, with landfills pricing themselves out of the marketplace, recycling and reuse were the only other disposal options for discarded materials.
Today in the San Francisco Bay Area and throughout California, the reuse and recycling industry has grown up and diversified in ways that could hardly be imagined a decade ago. No one knows how big the industry has become, but there are hundreds of businesses with thousands of employees in California alone.
But this healthy growth is now faced with a new threat, not just to its ability to continue growing and diversifying, but even to its very right to exist. Apparently recyclers collective appetite for materials has forced companies still dependent on waste manufacturing and disposal into overt action to drive their principal competition - us - out of business.
Handy targets include the recyclers who handle brush, wood, and ceramics. These categories of materials contain a potential supply equal to 40% or more of the total tonnage wasted at landfills. Other targets are recyclers who venture into commercial collection, competing with the big debris-box haulers for loads rich in cardboard, wood, and other recyclables. Competing curbside collection programs are constant irritants, from well-capitalized versions with many trucks to the invisible ³army of scavengers, poachers and pirates who skim the valuables out of collection boxes.
A recent cause celebre among recyclers drew from the deepening well of garbage companies discontent. The target was Palm Springs Recycling, the aggrieved party Waste Management of the Desert. Goliath took David to court.
WMI and the City of Rancho Mirage joined forces to sue the recycling company for franchise infringement. They cited an exclusive agreement WMI recently negotiated with the City to collect everything city residents discarded, whether intended for recycling or for burial. Palm Springs Recycling countered that it was not a waste handling business, and WMIs franchise applied only to discards that were wasted. Therefore the recyclers were not bound to observe the franchise.
The case was important enough to garbage interests that at least 81 (!) other cities, including San Jose and San Diego, paid a private law firm to write an amicus brief making as strong a case as they could to force the recycler to cease operating. Interestingly, although the lawyers implied that the recycler was a menace and danger to the public health and safety,1 they chose not to develop any substantive proofs that the garbage companys handling procedures were healthier, safer, or more beneficial than the recyclers. The judge noticed this omission, among other deficiencies, and released a tentative written opinion that sided with the recycler.
But as of this writing, nearly three months later, there are still no orders finalizing the decree. The final judgment is expected in September. One can only speculate on what forces behind the scenes are delaying the conclusion of this case.
A second huge garbage hauler in the state is also in attack mode. Last December, lawyers for Browning-Ferris Industries sent certified letters to recyclers in its San Mateo territory saying, BFI will not tolerate incursions by your company, or any other, whereby garbage and/or recyclable materials are removed from residential or commercial properties by any hauler other than BFI.2 The letter went on to order offending recyclers to cease-and-desist within 30 days [emphasis added] or face civil action for damages and injunctive relief.
Meanwhile, in the state legislature, a proposed cleanup bill for AB939 (the much-copied 1990 legislation mandating 50% recycling) came down heavily on the side of the garbage companies. The proposal used the existing bad language of AB939 in its definitions, saying that, in addition to mixed discards destined for landfill, solid waste includes...the following: the amount...diverted from a landfill or transformation [incineration] facility through source reduction, recycling, or composting...3 But other provisions in the cleanup encouraged municipalities to write sole-source contracts with a single operator to meet the goal. Its easy to see who would clean up. This supposedly recycling-friendly bill is actually a green light for the garbage giants to declare open season on the states recyclers.
The cleanup bill was defeated, but despite the temporary reprieve, the sum of these actions suggests that a strong bid is being made right now to transform existing monopoly controls over destructive disposal into monopoly controls over recycling. The obvious beneficiaries will be the biggest of the big garbage companies.
Recyclers who operate outside this charmed circle are profoundly uneasy, and moves like these should concern anti-incineration activists as well. Smaller-scale recyclers are growing their enterprises quite aggressively right now, using the traditional American business formula: offer competing services that are cheaper, more efficient, and more convenient.
This business strategy wins the hearts and minds of the customers, but garbage companies are arguing that they should be the monopoly recyclers, too, because they can build big MRFs (materials recovery facilities) that separate mixed discards and sell the products. It is crucial that environmentalists who want to help recycling understand that these MRFs are good at preserving the garbage-collection system but bad at recycling. They have problems with product quality; create only a few new jobs; create low-quality jobs; and recover much less of the available resource than recycling that depends on receiving already separated materials.
Overall, the economic and environmental effects are more positive from recycling firms, which are generally more labor-intensive, so they create more jobs per unit of output. They do in-house upgrading, but they also rely on clients source-separation. Thus they externalize the costs of primary sorting in exchange for asking low or no tipping fees (fees for the service of disposal). This allows them to produce more diverse, consistent, and valuable products than the semi-automated MRFs the garbage companies are so fond of. Recyclers salespeople often work out innovative local marketing arrangements that bring in more money while feeding more resources into the host economy.
To be sure, competing technologies are at issue here. But politics, values, and concepts are the real battle-ground. We recyclers have already demonstrated the technological means to recycle or reuse just about all of our discards. All of the major categories of material available for recycling -everything from hazardous chemicals to wood to ceramics to reusable goods -are flowing though niche recycling businesses that together add up to a comprehensive constructive disposal system, one that disposes of things by saving rather than destroying value. This is the competition that has driven the garbage giants to play what they must hope is a winning card.
To turn this threat aside, activists need to understand that the vocabulary of the solid waste management profession is designed to perpetuate solid waste, not resources. Even experienced recyclers sometimes say words are unimportant, so long as we understand each other and go on to mimic the garbage professionals language. But cases such as Rancho Mirage prove that seemingly innocent words tucked away in laws and regulations can open the door further to total recycling or close it in favor of garbage or low-value recycling as usual. To keep our materials recovery efforts moving in he right direction, toward quality and highest and best use, we have to keep our concepts clear.
We have to decide that total recycling - 100% - is the only goal worth working for. We have to have the patience to realize that movement toward total recycling is happening incrementally, not all at once. We have to have the courage to affirm all of our recycling industries accomplishments and celebrate that we are already at least halfway to the goal of total recycling, with the amount of real garbage shrinking so fast that the garbage companies are being forced into desperate actions such as these to protect their supply. We have to define recyclable discards out of the waste stream, category by category, and make sure that people in the recycling business are not regulated as waste handlers. We have to force our highly paid city managers to do the right thing, and open bidding processes for disposal contracts and facilities to real competition from real recyclers, afterward writing long-term, fair contracts that pay recyclers disposal service fees as needed to offset low market prices. We have to resist the tendency to allow monopoly control of tipping fees and discard supplies by multinational corporations, because this will stunt the recycling industrys growth and degrade the quality and quantity of recovered materials supplied to industry for remanufacture. Above all, we have to help the destructive disposal industry price itself out of the market by making sure all the costs of wasting resources are reflected in garbage tipping fees.