January 19, 2012

3 Min Read
Circular File: Five Myths of Recycling

Every Sunday, the Washington Post Outlook section includes a feature called “Five Myths,” which seeks to dismantle myths and clarify common misconceptions. To start the New Year off with a bang, I thought I’d confront five persistent recycling myths.

1. Recycling has been stagnant for the last decade.

Based on EPA data, recycling has done quite well in the last ten years. Our recovery rate for packaging, products, and food and yard waste, went from 28.6 percent to 34 percent for a 19 percent increase in the rate. Tonnage increased by 15.5 million tons, or 22 percent. These are not paltry increases. However, they are lower than in the previous decade, which saw a 78 percent increase in the recovery rate and a 109 percent increase in tonnage. But why should we be surprised? Recycling took off in the 90’s. Nothing goes straight up forever.

2. Packaging and paper recycling were flat in the last decade.

Actually, both showed strong increases. Packaging recovery went up to 48 percent in 2010, which is a 27 percent increase from 2000. Even more impressive was printing and writing paper, which skyrocketed to a 72 percent recovery rate. Most businesses would be happy with the packaging increase and ecstatic over that for printing and writing paper.

3. Packaging continues to grow in volume.

According to EPA data, we used slightly less packaging in 2010 than in 2000. Packaging increased somewhat until the great recession, but has lost ground since then. Glass, metal and paper packaging declined while lighter-weight plastic packaging increased. We also used fewer non-durable goods such as non-packaging paper and plastic products. The only two segments of the waste stream that increased in the last ten years were yard and food waste and durable goods such as electronics, furniture and appliances.

4. Local governments bear the cost of solid waste management.

This myth has some basis in fact. Larger local governments use taxpayer dollars to pay for residential solid waste and recycling services. However, more cities and counties use fees or rely on the hauler to bill the customer for these services. Fees are totally separate from the tax base and haulers bear the risk of unpaid bills, not taxpayers.

Nonetheless, all three methods are similar because you and I end up paying for these services. In addition, multi-family and commercial solid waste and recycling services are almost exclusively paid by property owners who contract with private haulers. The sweeping claims that local governments are financially responsible for solid waste management or that recycling is a local government-financed infrastructure are misleading at best.

5. Recycling creates jobs.

Yes, it does. The problem, however, is that many of these jobs are exported. Recycling creates collection and processing jobs. These are good jobs that stay in this country. Unfortunately, as America’s manufacturing base declines, the jobs that turn recyclables into new products are going overseas. If recycling is to realize its job creation and environmental protection potential we need to keep those jobs in this country. American factories meet far higher anti-pollution, worker protection and energy efficiency standards than those overseas.

The more we repeat myths about recycling the more we believe they are true. Worse yet, legislators consider bills to fix problems that don’t exist or aren’t as serious as they think. Let’s kill the myths and stick to the facts.

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