Circular File: So Long, 2008

The year that was in waste and recycling

For recycling and garbage, 2008 started out like a lamb and ended like a lion. On the legislative front, state legislatures saw more solid waste-related bills introduced and fewer passed than in previous years. Perhaps this was because many legislators anticipated a hot reelection climate. They decided to enhance their "green" image by sending out press releases about their new environmental bills without actually doing the heavy lifting needed to get them passed.

E-waste was the exception. In 2007, five states passed e-waste recycling laws, joining the four states that already had. In 2008, eight more states joined the band wagon. Almost half of Americans now live in states requiring some kind of e-waste recycling. Congress will be under increasing pressure to pass national legislation.

On the Hill, the solid waste industry scored a major victory when Congress required railroad waste transfer stations to get state issued operating permits. These facilities had previously enjoyed a federal exemption from this requirement. Local governments, faced with unregulated rail waste facilities, worked with solid waste managers from the public and private sectors to ensure that all transfer stations would be subject to public health and environmental requirements.

Congress also gave recyclers some tax relief in the $700 billion dollar bailout bill. Recyclers can use accelerated depreciation when they purchase processing equipment. Unfortunately, the collapse in recycling and credit markets will make it less likely that recyclers will be able to buy new equipment and take advantage of this tax break.

Flow control was debated at the local level as a result of last year's Supreme Court decision in the Oneida-Herkimer case. For the most part, the debate was limited to communities that lost the ability to flow control garbage as a result of the court's earlier decision in the Carbone case. As before, these local governments continue to face opposition from the private sector and from other local governments that don't want to be price gouged. For instance, when town officials in North Hempstead, N.Y., announced they wanted to bring back flow control, mayors of villages located within the town quickly formed a coalition to oppose the move.

The biggest news in 2008, however, was the collapse of recycling markets. Even longtime recyclers were stunned at the speed and depth at which paper, plastic and metal scrap markets lost value. Many market forecasters had predicted a slowdown in advance of the Beijing Olympics, expecting Chinese mills to cut back on production and buy less raw materials. Yet few predicted the complete collapse that started in September for scrap metal and in late October for paper. Prices had been strong for so long that many recyclers thought a new age of minimal market risk had dawned. However, once the world economy started tanking in mid September, recycling markets went down with it.

The good news is that out of this debris we have the opportunity to create a better way of paying for recycling programs. The market collapse reminds us that recycling is not free. Someone has to pay so that recyclables can be collected at the curbside and processed. At the top of my wish list for 2009 is a better method of allocating market risk while ensuring that costs are covered.

Chaz Miller is state programs director for the Environmental Industry Associations, Washington, D.C.

Opinions in this column do not necessarily reflect those of the National Solid Wastes Management Association or the Environmental Industry Associations. E-mail the author at