CLOSING THE LOOP
James P. McMahon
Reflections on an idea gone astray
I often wonder how the recycling movement first lost its way. What started out as a noble idea, driven by activists disgusted with excessive consumption and material waste, has been lost to a perversity of political correctness and greed. The recycling model that emerged instead feeds on consumption and fails to accomplish what we originally set out to do. When I think of these things, I am drawn to my own roots and an evening that is forever etched in my mind.
It was one of those cool, gray, drizzling nights in Seattle. I remember it as having been January or February, but only because of the weather. On this particular evening, there was a closeness, a peculiar intimacy, created by the reflection of the antique streetlights against the gray, low hung clouds so typical of the Northwest. We’d just closed down the shop after another long, hard day. Armen Stepanian and I ran a non-profit recycling center, one of the first in the nation. Back then that meant crushing glass in barrels by hand with a pipe and flattening tin cans one at a time with a hammer. Every scrap of material had to be begged for from an unwilling public and every piece was processed for market with a reverence deserving of a resource being returned to the industrial process from whence it came.
When you live in Seattle you grow ambivalent to the rain. It becomes a part of you. Armen and I stood on the corner, unaware of the mist, reflecting on the day’s accomplishments, when a long black limo drew up to the curb beside us. Our conversation was stilled by the electric hum of the rear window lowering. The window was replaced by the darkness within and the faintest view of the pale, shrunken face of a thin old man lurking deep inside the recesses of the limo. It was my first and only look at the man. We leaned down and peered inside.
“You’re wasting your time,” stated Josie Razore flatly. Mr. Razore was the kingpin of the local garbage company. It was the winter of ‘75 and, old as he was, he remained the driving force behind the Rabanco companies. This was the same man who in 1938, as president of Diamond Tank Transport Co., submitted the low bid for a five year garbage collection contract with the City of Seattle. His bid was not only the lowest, but was lower than the previous year’s cost for the same service. This was in spite of well-publicized labor demands for an increase in wages. After the contract was awarded, Razore announced that he would lose money on the deal and successfully negotiated an additional $100,000 in annual revenues. He’d had the contract ever since.
Razore's comments that evening were directed at our efforts to instill a recycling ethic in both the local neighborhood and Seattle’s City Council. Garbage was garbage and why didn’t we find something constructive to do, was the gist of his remarks. We argued that recycling was important to building a sustainable future. We must integrate our use and re-use of resources into the way we manufacture consumer goods. We must reduce consumption and save resources for future generations.
He looked at us queerly. I could see in his eyes that he thought us fools. In turn, I thought him the fool for his failure to understand the urgency of our cause. Here was a man who could help us, help the world, if he only understood. We argued our case with a vehemence becoming of the times, but still, he dismissed us, as the window rose again, and the limo drove off, its occupant unconvinced.
Those were heady times. There were only a handful of us in the entire country, but we were consumed by the importance of the effort we pursued. The idea of recycling was not new. At one time recycling had been the norm, but the country had strayed as it reveled in economic growth and the post-war boom, and as it did, consumption became the driving force of economic growth. Life in America was good and we measured that goodness in washers and dryers, new cars and houses, and consuming goods at a rate unprecedented in the history of man. Waste became a sign of our success and the tiring task of recycling became an unnecessary burden on a growing society.
Our goal was to right this obvious wrong, to place limits on consumption and to reinvent recycling. This was no less than a transformation of the way a country valued and utilized its resource base and produced its consumer goods. We knew in our hearts that it was only a matter of time until we won, that the country was certain to come around to our way of thinking. This certainty drove us as we pounded each steel can, as we flailed at the glass, crushing it into loads heavy enough to transport to market.
The work was tedious. First, I went door to door in the Fremont District of Seattle and asked each person to please sort their recyclable materials and then set them out on their doorstep once each month. We would pick them up for free. “We don’t use that much,” they responded. “Our little bit can’t possibly make a difference,” they said.
“It all adds up,” I told them. “Please, just give it a try and let’s see what we can do,” I pleaded. Some agreed, most did not, but we slowly built a clientele.
Working with the material was equally difficult. It came to us dirty and unprepared for market, in spite of the neat little directions we provided. Picking up a bag full of recyclables, an unfinished can of pop or beer would drain out on your hands and clothes. Cigarette butts soaked in beer would spill out on the sorting table, along with the bottles and cans. We handling each piece of recovered product by hand, sorting it by type or color. As we crushed the glass into steel barrels, small fragments would fly about the room, smacking our faces, lodging in any available crevice. Each material had separate markets and each must be prepared to specification before we could sell it. The work was dirty but it built both muscle and resolve because of the vision which drove it.
We went home each night exhausted and rank with spillage and sweat, fragments of glass in our hair and clothing, having toiled to produce some small amount of recovered material. Our goal was to save energy and non-renewable resources. Our labor could be renewed each day, whereas the planet held only so much tin and aluminum.
The gray skies of the Northwest were the birthplace of this unique idea called recycling. The states of Oregon and Washington were juxtaposed geographically but complete opposites when it came to recycling. Oregon had passed its infamous ‘bottle bill’ in 1972, mandating the return of beverage containers to grocery stores. Industry in Washington countered with a bill of its own, The Model Litter Control Act. The latter spent a great deal of money cleaning up litter, the most obvious and politically sensitive sign of waste in our society, and a little money to promote recycling.
Litter was much of the focus of these early efforts. It was too visible a sign of our societal attitude toward resources. The industry groups that assembled to fight against a proliferation of bottle bills across the country focused on litter because it was clear that if we could hide the symptoms the public would be appeased. We wouldn’t have to address the actual problems. Times were good and America, both industry and the public, didn’t want to stop wasting resources if the issue could be solved in some other way. Leave it to the p.r. guys to figure that one out.
Industry in Washington went another step, however, when the Northwest’s regionally unique collection of local breweries established a voluntary effort to buy back their own beer bottles to refill them. The major aluminum companies in the country enhanced that effort by offering to purchase used aluminum beverage cans. Newspapers had been recyclable for many years and a network of waste paper dealers already existed throughout the country.
As a result of the creation of these markets for used consumer containers, a recycling industry began to evolve as entrepreneurs opened private recycling centers in neighborhoods throughout Washington State. Slowly, these centers grew in number, from perhaps six in 1974 to several hundred by 1984. When a partner and I established Seattle Recycling, Inc. in 1976, we recovered in one day what Armen and I had accomplished in a month. We were on to something.
Then I met Harry Leavitt. Harry is an environmentalist and a person who has learned how to be true to himself and to the ideas he holds dear. We had met before but became staunch friends after he asked me to help him with a problem. Seattle had mandatory trash service. Each home was allowed to set out up to four cans and eight bags of trash each week. But Harry had no trash. He had stopped paying his trash bill some months before and after several warnings, Seattle’s Solid Waste Utility had placed a lien on Harry’s house. Harry felt pure, but his wife was livid. However, he could not pay that bill. We formed a plan instead.
The City had trash collection rate hearings coming up. They planned to review the need to raise rates, but they hadn’t planned on meeting the likes of us. We searched the City and found that there were twelve other people who had no trash and together formed the Zero Can Club. These were not some ragtag band of young environmentalists but consisted entirely of older folks who had started recycling and composting along with their ‘victory’ gardens during World War II and simply never stopped. The group attended the rate hearings and made a request that Seattle’s mandatory trash fee be replaced with a variable fee, charging for what a home actually set out and including an exemption for those individuals who worked to have no trash at all.
Seattle’s Solid Waste Utility scoffed at the idea. Preposterous. A nightmare to administer. People will dump trash in the streets. It will never work. But we persisted. We packed the Council chambers. Harry unveiled one month’s worth of his trash on the Council podium. Armen insulted the Council’s solid waste committee chairman as deserving of that role because he was ‘both solid and a waste’. The TV cameras rolled and a revolution was in the offing.
Councilman Paul Kraabel heard what we were saying and invited me to his chambers to discuss the idea more thoroughly. A reporter from The Seattle Times sat in on the meeting. Everything was off the record, but I explained the inequities, the possible solution, and the closed mindedness of the Utility staff. Although nothing ever appeared in the Times from that meeting, we gained an ally in the press and the Utility was put on the defensive. From then on everything they said, every assumption they presented, was attacked. A tone was set which would change the way Seattle dealt with its trash forever.
Variable rates were seen as a risky idea and rather than endorse the concept outright, the council decided to put the idea to a test. The SORT Project was conceived to test the effects of recycling and variable rates on trash volumes. SORT was an eighteen month project in which a truck collected recyclables once a month from the homes on twenty different trash routes. Half of these and another ten routes not provided with collection service had variable trash rates instead of the flat rate which existed elsewhere in the City.
SORT was a mixed success. Recycling rates were tied to demographics with the wealthy recycling the most. Variable rates were shown to have a clear and positive impact on recycling, but neither recycling or variable rates had much impact on how much trash was discarded.
Meanwhile, the City was increasingly aware that it had a very real problem with trash disposal. Its two landfill sites were filling and alternative sites were scarce. The City created four staff positions to develop energy recovery and recycling strategies which might solve the disposal problem. I went to work for the project under the auspices of the Mayor’s Office of Energy Conservation, charged with developing a recycling strategy for Seattle. This was to turn out for me to be one of those disappointing experiences in life.
Charlie Royer was Mayor of Seattle and his commitment to the project was mixed, at best. Energy recovery was a controversial, high cost, high profile alternative to disposal which held great promise in the minds of Utility engineers and Council staff accustomed to big solutions. Recycling was seen as a way to get environmental groups to buy into the City’s overall scheme. Recycling itself was never seen as the solution to anything.
Of course, I didn’t know this at the time. I went to work for Seattle with a zeal which reflected my love of the place. I lived in an apartment on Capitol Hill which sat on a bluff overlooking the freeway and downtown. Each night when I came home from work, I would sit in the bay window, watch the cars speed by, and feel the pulse of the City. The motion, through the maze of buildings and concrete, emulated to me the pulsing heartbeat of this young, vibrant city. Each night, almost without fail, an orange sun would sink slowly behind the collection of skyscrapers which framed my view, reflecting bright red on the frigid, gray waters of Puget Sound and then sinking, finally, behind the Olympic Mountains far to the West. I was mesmerized. I was captive to the beauty of this place.
So when I went to work for Seattle, I put my own heart into the effort. I was not prepared for the ambivalence which was the norm of Seattle’s civil service. Foolishly, neither was I prepared for the enmity of the City’s Solid Waste Utility. As a person of logic, with scientific training, it seemed to me that the place to start was with a data base. What was going on in Seattle already? How much trash did we generate? How much recycling was occurring in the private sector, at no cost to City ratepayers? But when I sent a memo to the Utility, requesting solid waste volumes, instead of data, I got a memo asking me who’s budget was going to pay to look in the file to ‘research’ this information.
This game continued with each request. The Utility staff took a brazen, derisive tone. We were stonewalled. Any information we wanted was denied, in spite of the fact that we all worked for the same guy, the Mayor of Seattle. It turns out that there is a security in civil service, an immunity which allows one to remain firmly ensconced in spite of what the political leadership or the citizenry may want. The Utility held a negative view not only of us, but of the City Council itself. I remember when the Director of the Utility, Gerald Fairbanks, described the council to me as nine people in a canoe, rowing down a stream, each of whom thought that it was themselves who was steering. This was my first lesson in government and it did not fit with my perception of Seattle as a well governed metropolis of exceptional beauty.
We proceeded to develop a recycling strategy for Seattle without the help of the Utility. They continued to taunt us at every turn. The constant bickering and the lack of support from a namby-pamby Mayor led to a growing ulcer in my stomach. It was inside the walls of Seattle’s Municipal Building that I first learned I did not have the stomach for government. Nor did I have much respect for those who endured. The key to longevity in Seattle civil service was a low profile and distaste for change.
In spite of all this, we endured long enough to produce a significant recycling strategy. We found that the City enjoyed a recovery rate of some 14% of its waste stream, due entirely to the efforts of the growing private recycling industry in Seattle and the Northwest. I crafted a strategy which would build on this effort and enhance it by encouraging the public to get involved. Variable trash rates became the cornerstone of the strategy. This provided a direct financial benefit to those who reduced their waste and a cost to those who did not. This financial incentive was augmented by an educational effort to increase awareness citywide. We established a goal of increasing recovery from 14% to 22% within five years and set up a means to measure the recycling rate periodically.
The goal of 22% was subsequently achieved as planned and two years later, in 1987, recovery had increased to 24%. The cost to consumers for this effort was almost nothing, perhaps $100,000 per year and any added cost to administer and monitor voluntary compliance with the variable rates. The strategy relied on private efforts with government playing a supportive role. For Seattle, this was a local and appropriate solution which worked well. The strategy achieved all that it needed to and did so with a high benefit to cost ratio. To my knowledge, Seattle’s original recycling strategy is unmatched to this day in cost effectiveness.
Seattle’s original strategy dismissed curbside collection of recyclables as too expensive. The benefits of curbside did not compare favorably with the expense. Some private residential collection efforts continued, but the effects of this were minuscule. The bulk of recovery came from drop off programs in grocery store parking lots, the purchase of recyclables by retail recycling centers, commercial collection programs by trash companies, and office paper collection programs.
Each of these activities, by a variety of private companies, continued to grow and evolve in the years from 1980 to 1987. A healthy and profitable private recovery system was emerging as a new feature of the city and state’s economy. At the same time, the trash disposal problem was becoming more serious. In Seattle, the City’s two landfills had filled and then EPA had declared these as superfund sites. So, trash disposal was about to become dramatically more expensive due to the cost of remediation at these sites and the high cost of finding a replacement site.
City councils across the country were spending millions studying energy recovery as a means to rid themselves of increasing trash volumes, with little effect. Energy recovery was costly and opposed by neighborhood groups who might have to live near a facility. Meanwhile, recycling was increasingly effective at recovering material throughout Washington State. Recycling had begun to spring up in areas throughout the rest of the country as well, though the effects were minimal in comparison to recycling in the Northwest.
The markets for recovered recyclables in the Northwest grew as large manufacturers became more comfortable with their reliance on secondary materials as a feedstock for their production processes. Did you hear what I just said? That is, recycling became more reliable as markets for materials grew of their own accord. This occurred even as the primary focus and attention of those in charge of the solid waste problem was on energy recovery. Government was in no way responsible for the emergence of this new recycling industry.
Small, local solutions were providing a more practical alternative to waste problems than were the big engineering systems most cities were enchanted by. Recycling, as it emerged in the Northwest, was a product of the people and the place. This growth in markets in the Northwest was spurred by individual action. It was based upon understanding what markets really are, that is, one person convincing another person to try something new and foreign, to enter into a transaction for mutual benefit, in spite of past experience and objections. Individuals were working together to achieve that original idealized goal of integrating post-consumer resources back into the industrial processes.
In Seattle, this consisted of meeting with the president of the local glass bottle manufacturing plant to find ways for him to agree to take more used glass, to develop systems to clean it, and to receive it in ways which would accommodate the growing number of small recycling companies. This also meant meeting with the manager of the local detinning plant, which was geared entirely to recovering canning plant scrap, to get him to accept higher levels of contamination from food waste and paper labels, to take smaller loads, and to pay more.
These efforts took time and were initially met by skepticism and resistance. Individual purchasing agents, representing large corporate manufacturers, were often pushed beyond their comfort zones with these requests and in accepting these materials. But as they agreed to try recycling and then witnessed the growth in volume, they eventually learned that recycling provided a new opportunity for the growth of their businesses. This is market development in its purest form.
In the Northwest then, where this recycling idea was spawned, the states of Oregon and Washington provided contrasting models which continue to be relevant today. In Oregon, a legislated mandate, the ‘bottle bill’, required the return of beverage containers to grocery stores. The bill said nothing about markets, but to some extent markets were created or existing markets, much the same as those in Washington, were expanded as a result of the bill because it created a cheap supply of materials, which had to go somewhere. But in Oregon, because of the mandate, which required the return of beverage containers to grocery stores, the independent, private recycling companies, did not emerge as they did in Washington because the economics of the marketplace did not support them. Instead, a system of non-profit recycling centers emerged which focused on the recovery of the non legislated and less valuable recyclables such as tin cans and glass. Recycling Centers in Oregon never had the economic vitality of their counterparts in Washington because they were deprived of handling the more valuable beverage containers which the law mandated would go elsewhere.
The two states provide a contrast between mandates and incentives. In Washington, with financial incentives put in place, a private industry, operated by individual entrepreneurs, emerged in response to the creation of private markets for materials. In Oregon, recovery rates for aluminum cans and beer bottles reached 85 to 90%. The aluminum was recycled and the beer bottles either washed and refilled, if they were from a local brewery, or recycled as scrap glass if not. In Washington, recovery rates for aluminum cans and beer bottles reached 65 to 70%. In Washington, recovery rates for non-beverage glass, tin cans, and paper was significantly higher than in Oregon because they were collected at the same place. Consumers could recycle everything at the same time. So, although the recovery rate for beverage containers was higher in Oregon than in Washington, because it was required by law, the recovery of the plethora of other materials in Oregon was actually weakened as a result of the mandate because it forced consumers to take them elsewhere, at a much greater inconvenience and it forced Oregon to rely on a subsidized non-profit collection system.
In Washington, consumers benefited from a more diverse network of recycling centers which actually paid them for materials. Private recycling markets provided a solid economic base which spawned an entrepreneurial response, that is, the emergence of an entire network of recycling centers. So, Washingtonians enjoyed a lower cost recovery network. Instead of costing consumers money, it actually paid them for materials.
As far as I am aware, this is the first example of the demonstrated effectiveness of mandates vs. incentives in crafting solutions to environmental issues. Mandates achieve the desired end rapidly, leaving no doubt as to their effect. Incentives, on the other hand, take time to achieve the same ends, but do so at a fraction of the cost to consumers, relying as they do on individual entrepreneurial activity to create private business opportunities. Markets are natural mechanisms. Markets mimic evolution in natural systems in that markets spur unpredictable and beneficial results as individuals attempt to survive economically within the biosystem. The resulting solutions are necessarily more efficient because they reflect individual action whose purpose is to thrive economically by being efficient at earning a livelihood. These same issues are pertinent today as we increasingly debate the use of these mechanisms to achieve environmental objectives and a sustainable economy.
In those early days of recycling, when the Northwest seemed a world apart and Callenbach’s Ecotopia felt imminent, there was an altruism which drove the creation of the recycling movement. Under those gray Northwestern skies, we promised each other, with an almost religious fervor, that it was our goal to spur a movement, to change the world. And when we’d achieved our ends, we would each step aside and let the big businesses which must necessarily do so, carry forth our ideas. I don’t know what the hell we thought we’d do to make a living at that point or how we imagined the world as such a gracious and giving place. Just the opposite was about to occur in the peaceful setting of the Northwest.
I have spoken with reverence about the emergence of an industry, in response to voluntary incentives. As that industry emerged and gained vitality, it also came to hold an economic stake in the future of recycling. People’s livelihoods and investments were at risk. Individuals had gambled on recycling and now that it was growing, they became reluctant to merely watch it evolve uncontrolled. These individuals now had investments at risk and incomes to protect. Greed entered the picture.
There is a natural competitiveness between companies which benefits consumers. This was normal. But as government agencies became increasingly aware of the benefits of recycling to the public, they looked for ways to intervene. This put private companies in jeopardy and on the defensive. Recycling companies began to watch the various government agencies in order to stave off these interventions. A competition resulted among the ideas which might be implemented to encourage recycling.
Some companies mistakenly fought government at every turn. Government was going to become involved. This was inevitable because of the impact recycling has on government regulated solid waste. It was a matter of how they might do so. Unfortunately for the public, and their pocketbooks, those individuals most often responsible for inciting government action, knew little or nothing about how private businesses and markets work.
Still, the matter was handled most sensitively by government in the Northwest, which was aware of the benefit it derived from private recyclers. This was aided by the degree of influence which the recycling industry had attained over the years. Had recyclers held together, other systems than those which exist today might have been developed in Washington. Instead, a discomfort with working with one’s competitors caused local recycling companies to stand apart, fighting government intervention as separate entities. This resulted in their losing ground to the overwhelming enthusiasm which was to spur a new era in recycling programs in the Northwest.
One might attribute this next spurt in activity to a sleepy Charlie Royer. The man was still Mayor and seemed to just wake up one day and tell a reporter that it was time for Seattle to develop a curbside recycling program. His reasoning was based on the fact that he was from Oregon. Charlie often seemed to govern this way and he told a good joke, but his awareness of the issue as well as his interest did not extend any deeper than that.
The City’s Solid Waste Utility, under new and progressive management by now, proceeded to decide what sort of curbside program it wanted and in the summer of 1987, let a Request for Proposals. Seattle had traditionally split the City into two areas for its trash hauling contracts and did so again for recycling. Waste Management, Inc. won the contract in the north section of the city and the Razore’s Rabanco Companies won in the south.
Seattle was one of the first cities in the nation to implement citywide curbside recycling. San Jose, California had preceded Seattle and Waste Management’s bid was based upon the collection model established in San Jose. What was different about Seattle was the public response. It was overwhelming. In the north end of the city, where the demographics were more conducive to curbside collection and Waste Management provided weekly service, the participation rate immediately approached 90%. Seattle’s streets were dotted with yellow and green recycling bins set at curbside in different neighborhoods every day of the week. The visual effect of the bins resulted in a kind of mania and participation continued to increase.
No one involved in developing the program had anticipated a response of this magnitude. On the first day of the program, Waste Management needed six more trucks than it had purchased in order to handle the unanticipated volumes of material.
More importantly, Seattle became an instant national celebrity. Its recycling program gave Seattle something it had never much experienced, the national spotlight. Suddenly, this quiet remote City, known only for its rain and space needle, became the nation’s environmental torch bearer.
Seattle’s success spawned a sort of mindlessness. The whole country became aware of Seattle’s recycling program and other cities came to take a look. What people saw when they came to Seattle were these yellow and green recycling bins lined up on the curb, house after house. What they failed to see was the infrastructure and the very special sense of place which bolstered this superficial visual image.
I attribute the overwhelming public response to the curbside program to the years of effort which had gone into building a recycling ethic in the Northwest. Seattle was aware of its unique recycling centers. The public had heard about recycling for fifteen years by then. And, in the intervening years, Seattle had developed an outdoor and environmental ethic which was unique in the nation. This ethic was nurtured by the rain, and the setting. Recycling worked in Seattle, then, because it was a local solution in response to a real local problem and based upon an emerging local ethic.
So when recycling came to the front door and knocked, people set out their recyclables as asked. Seattle’s success spewed out across the nation as other cities copied her efforts. In the years from 1988 through 1990, the number of recycling programs nationally grew from two to over four hundred. From 1991 through 1994 that number has grown to over 6000. Of these, not a single city which implemented curbside recycling has demonstrated that they were aware of any component of Seattle’s recycling infrastructure other than the curbside program and the variable trash rates, which had apparently spurred such dramatic success.
The result of this failure to discern what parts of recycling in Seattle were effective is that other cities copied Seattle’s effort to recover some 11% of the waste stream at a cost of $1,000,000 per year while missing altogether Seattle’s success at recovering 24% of the waste stream at a cost of $100,000 per year. The public in the rest of America got the icing but missed the cake.
This failure had to be due in part to the Utility’s own lack of understanding about what had occurred in Seattle. And part of the blame lay squarely on the group of individuals in the recycling industry who never effectively conveyed their own story. Certainly when visitors came to view the curbside program, and they came in droves, little about the underlying private infrastructure which supported the vast majority of recycling was conveyed. Had these outsiders taken the time to really study recycling in Seattle, they could have seen by the periodic surveys of recycling, the graphs which showed the bulk of the activity as occurring in the private sector.
Or, perhaps some did see the massive effect and benefit on solid waste from private recycling. But private recycling posed two great problems for public sector employees wishing to spur recycling. First, to grow such a system would take knowledge, skill, and time. And second, it was also require a focus on markets, something the public sector knows little about. And frankly, the public wanted recycling right away. They weren’t asking for quality or depth, they wanted the stuff picked up at the door.
Regardless, in the years from 1988 through 1994, a recycling mania swept across America. Curbside collection programs were implemented across the country. Along the way, recycling became chic. Although those in the industry constantly reminded politicians that without markets recycling could not succeed, both politicians and environmental activists chose to ignore this advice. This had little consequence for them but has resulted in consumers paying far more for recycling systems than those systems are worth.
It became cool for politicians to endorse recycling. The public wanted the convenience of curbside collection. Programs were implemented at costs to the public far in excess of any benefit derived. And former recycling activists, who barely understood recycling themselves, or didn’t, became high paid executives at big trash companies and solid waste consulting firms. People who had lived on less than $1000 a month a few years before were now earning $70,000 per year and more.
Recycling took hold. The rapid growth in recycling collection programs created a vast surplus of materials. Existing markets were saturated with materials. With material in vast oversupply, the industries using the materials lowered what they paid, since they could get all they wanted for free. North American collection programs went on to saturate markets in the Orient and in Europe. The cost of recycling to consumers was driven still higher due to the low prices now being paid for recyclables.
California implemented their own version of a bottle bill which is a total fiasco. The state required the return of beverage containers to grocery stores and payment of a fee to consumers for their recyclables. But the value of the materials themselves could not support this type of dispersed recovery network. The cost of recovery was dramatically higher than what it had been when private recycling centers were buying recyclables from the public. So, California analyzed the costs and developed a system of subsidies to support their notion of a convenient recycling system. The cost of this system is far in excess of any benefit derived from it. Consumers pay the price when they buy the product
There’s nothing wrong with the notion of placing the cost of recycling internal to the cost of buying and using a product. That’s a good idea. The problem in California is that they backed into this notion by establishing first in their minds and then on the ground a system based on a bureaucratic notion of convenience. That system has turned out to be highly inefficient and costly. Had California chosen to spur markets instead, they might have accomplished the same level of recycling at a much lower cost.
The idea of subsidized recycling is rooted in California’s grand experiment. I ask you, how is subsidized recycling different from subsidized tobacco farming? Is one good, the other not? Do you think our perspective on this might tend to vary through time? The whole notion of subsidized recycling ignores any responsibility to the public to provide recycling systems at a reasonable cost. The cost should match the benefit derived, or the effort should be postponed until it does. While recycling has taken hold, what has been implemented nationwide is a shadow of what could have been developed at a fraction of the price. Had the nation, politicians and recycling advocates in particular, exhibited some patience, an entire recovery system could have been developed which would have cost the public nothing at all.
I don’t know when it was that someone first suggested that recycling be mandated, but that is clearly the turning point down the wrong road in my mind. It is a mistake to mandate anything. Mandates may be well intentioned, but they create the wrong results. The concept of mandates contains an implied misevaluation of the cost to consumers. Mandates say that we want to achieve a specific objective, regardless of cost. Mandates create actions which are fixed through time. They stymie rather than encourage natural evolution. Is that really what we want? Recycling at any cost? Even when the recycling systems being implemented use more energy than they save in collecting materials and shipping them thousands of miles to distant markets?
No. This is not what we want. This is a waste of resources.
Recycling, at it currently exists in the United States, with few exceptions, actually depletes more energy than it saves. Let us look at a few examples. In the suburbs of Denver, where trash collection goes unregulated, as many as four to six recycling trucks may travel down the same street offering recycling services to residents. Fuel is burned by each truck. The material collected by these trucks all goes to one of a few processing centers where it is prepared for markets. These markets, with the exception of Coors buying glass, are either in the Northwest or overseas. So, these materials are shipped long distances, consuming fuel once again. The potential energy savings of recycling in the first place are marginal. Glass recycling only saves 10% of the energy it takes to manufacture bottles from raw materials. Newspaper recycling saves little energy, but does lessen the reliance of forest by-products. When shipped across the globe by truck, train, and freighter, however, the cost of shipping incurs more energy than can ever be saved by recycling.
So, what is the point? To instill a recycling ethic? Advocates of recycling at any cost say that once the public is accustomed to recycling, the markets will follow. To some extent this is true. Because an overabundance of cheap materials may encourage investors to create markets. But the two could be brought on line together, in regionally sustainable systems which would optimize the use of resources. The truth is that politicians don’t want to think that deeply or to deal with challenges that difficult. It is much simpler to give the public recycling in spite of its negative environmental impacts. And that is precisely what has been done, across the nation.
Let us go back to the roots of recycling. The purpose of recycling in society is to conserve energy and material resources. This is accomplished through the integration of these materials into production processes. To be energy efficient, this integration should take place at the regional level. A strain on virgin resources should be lessened and secondary materials should replace or augment the virgin source of raw material input.
The recycling systems in America today don’t hold up to this end. Recycling has become too politically correct and in so doing the focus has shifted to appearance, rather than function. Our politicians have given us systems which appear as they should but which lack any depth. The result is that regional markets only occasionally exist, materials are shipped across the globe to any market that will take them and the recovery systems cost us more than they are worth, burning energy to drive votes instead of saving it in the name of conservation. Recycling has become a palliative which eases the guilt we might otherwise feel for our consumptive ruin of the planet. It serves no other purpose as it currently exists.
Natural ecological systems provide the perfect parallel. In natural systems, the economy is primarily a local one. The sun and rain provide inputs into a system which otherwise depends upon local resources to sustain itself. Sustainable human systems are also local, or, more precisely, regional. In a sustainable economy, much of the consumable products would be produced from materials present in the bioregion, whether virgin or secondary. Imports are minimized and treated as opportunities to develop substitutes via new business enterprises.
The whole notion of a global economy and an ever expanding universe is an illusion based on the erroneous assumption that man can continue to outmaneuver natural systems. Within a natural system, specific limited resources limit the ability of that system to support a population. Man’s greatest success to date has been his ability to supplant these limits with man-made support systems, be they dams or imports. As a result, larger numbers of people live in a given area than could if the population were limited by the natural ecosystem itself.
We become increasingly reliant on a geographically expanding production system to bring us those resources we need to survive. As we do so, we become less aware of the constraints of the natural community in which we live. If this is not obvious today, it will increasingly become so as we expand infinitely.
In the case of recycling we have built collection systems which ignore market demand. Our approach to markets has been to strong arm the big multi-national companies into using recyclables in order to sell product or to rely on markets which require that we ship recyclables thousands of miles. We are building the recycling model to complement our production model, which itself is the cause of many of our environmental problems. This ‘bigger is better’ mentality is precisely what is wrong with our economic model in the first place.
Harry and I stood huddled against the chill night on the bow of a ferry plowing across the channel to Vancouver Island. The sky was full of stars, unusual for the Northwest in October. The scent of fresh cedar hung in the air as a working barge hauled its load of chips past us to some market. We were making the crossing to visit the site of Clayoquot Sound, where over 750 activists had been arrested that summer (‘93) in the defense of old trees. We wanted to see these trees and we planned to lie on the road in front of logging trucks ourselves if the spirits moved us so.
There were others there with us on the bow and we spoke casually with a former colleague of Timothy Leary’s about those former days, when Leary was promoting mind expansion and the environmental movement was in its infancy. Harry and I were spawned in those years and they will forever have an impact on how we live in this world. The point of those years, if any point has survived ‘til now, was to have open minds and to work aggressively for a saner world. The conversation set the tone for our journey into the heart of old growth rainforest.
The controversy in Clayoquot (pronounced Clakowit, by the locals) centers around the largest remaining stand of temperate rain forest on the North American continent. That rainforest runs along the coast from Washington State far north into British Columbia and Alaska. Environmentalists want the remaining trees in Clayoquot Sound left standing. The lumber companies and their massive labor force want to continue the tradition of a lumber export economy. Their jobs, their livelihoods, and their communities are at stake.
The road across the island is amazing. There should be little wonder as to why some people are in distress over the extent of logging in B.C. The road leads the unsuspecting traveler through the ruins of once great stands of timber. The hills are now littered with rotting stumps and the few small misplaced survivors of an apparent war on the landscape. Someone reaped wood here with a vengeance.
On occasion, the war torn hillsides were highlighted by the red and blue words of activists painted onto highway barricades. The words spur rage as the traveler continues west, toward the coast. There is a lesson in these hillsides, if only to leave such scenes hidden from the view of a sympathetic public. The proponents of logging lost this battle when they chose to cut trees so openly, so callously. With greater discretion the harvest could have continued a while longer.
When we arrived in Tofino we went directly to The Common Loaf, the bakery that serves as the unofficial headquarters for the fight against the killing of the trees. We read the news clips, drank rich black coffee, and got a feel for the battle. Afterward, we went to the actual headquarters of Friends of Clayoquot Sound. We met the ring leaders, discussed the issues, saw the maps of what was left and what was being cut. A road blockade was planned for the morning. Would we join it?
Before we committed we wanted to take a look around. We were impressed by the enthusiasm and political daring of the ragtag band of young environmentalists. We walked toward the bay and there encountered a display put together by MacMillan Bloedel, the Canadian timber giant being accused by environmentalists of the rape on the hillsides. We spoke with the attendant who showed us detailed information on the extent of the planning process which determined what trees would be cut and what areas preserved.
The planning process in the Clayoquot Sound controversy is the key to the puzzle there. The Provincial government established a group to oversee the development of a plan. That plan endorses continued harvests but calls for a sustainable yield, something relatively new for British Columbia, and sets aside specific watersheds from any timber harvest. The environmentalists opposed to the timber harvest were invited to participate in the planning and initially did so. But any such effort is bound to result in compromise, due to the composition of the planning committee. So, the environmentalists left the group and chose to stake out their clear opposition to any more logging.
The Clayoquot Sound logging controversy is the absolute epitome of the problem confronting the environmental movement today. Immense tracts of land have been clearcut to produce wood products. These products created income which contributed substantially to the settlement and well-being of British Columbia in the first place. These forest products created income and communities and provided timber, not primarily for B.C. homes but for U.S. and Japanese homes.
When MacMillan Bloedel cut those trees, they were not singularly responsible for the way they did so. The entire British Columbia culture endorsed those harvests as a means to drive the economy of the Province. It is not MB that is guilty of rape. It is the people of British Columbia. And those trees were cut down and those hillsides left barren not for some meaningless enterprise, but to drive housing starts in the United States and Japan.
It is one thing to set out to preserve a beautiful stand of trees. Increasingly, we in the United States are doing so. We preserve portions of ecosystems as wilderness, places where no sign of man, other than a trail, is supposed to exist. Believe me, I do not oppose this. Wilderness is a truly incredible experience. But we cannot expect to save trees if we never address the need for wood. In the United States we measure our economic health by the number of new homes being built. This mind set alone forces the cutting of trees. Where are these trees to come from?
Harry and I rented a boat and crossed the waters from Tofino to Meres Island. We walked among the tangled web of twisted, old and knarled giant cedar. We spent a good part of the day on the island, walking the shoreline, and cruising the bay. The activists are right; this is a very special place.
Harry and I did not lay our bodies in the road on that day or any other. The environmentalists erred in not staying on the planning committee. Like it or not, the B.C. economy was at one time driven by natural resources. As it transitions to some other economic base, the Provincial government is bound to ease the pain of that transition by slowing the harvest of trees and refocusing economic development. But they cannot simply stop, displacing entire communities in so doing. And environmentalists must participate in the process. They must work face to face with their neighbors, be they loggers or shop keepers to create new enterprises, based on community and what might work in that particular place. This battle is not about who is right and who is wrong. It should be about living in community, with other people and other species.
The travesty in Clayoquot Sound is not a separate issue from recycling in the U.S. Both are flip sides of the same issue. They, like all things in natural systems, are interconnected. Consequently, the policies which govern these issues must become connected. Currently, they are not.
The United States measures economic success using housing starts as one factor. At the same time, we set aside timber, which in theory will never be cut, in wilderness areas. We do not consume less timber. We simply freight it in from farther away, preferably from a place less visible to consumers and activists.
It seems to me that we have two great problems. One of these is the consumption of material goods. We must come to grips with the question of how we can live on this planet and manage our impacts appropriately. We cannot both measure consumption as a gauge of our success and live sustainably on the planet.
The other problem is our seemingly inherent drive to build bigger and bigger economic machines. Instead of being satisfied that we have done well when we have built a local sustainable business, for some reason we are driven to build it bigger still. We build huge multi-national corporations which get out of touch with their local operations. As a result, a bottom line number in an accounting division at a corporate headquarters of a company in Chicago drives the timber harvests in the forests surrounding a small 2 x 4 mill in South Fork, Colorado.
This seems to me to be a big part of the problem. Our success in developing a recycling strategy and a high recovery rate in Seattle was based upon individuals working together as neighbors in a community. We called on others to extend themselves beyond what they might otherwise do in the name of caring about the place in which we lived. Both the manager of the local mill, which might have cut trees to make paper, and the environmentalist, who hoped to convince him to use waste paper along with wood chips, had to stretch to create new ways of doing business. In so doing, new markets were created. This ethic and willingness resulted in success.
One cannot impose these feelings upon individuals by federal mandates that recycling take precedence over the use of virgin resources. Nor is it appropriate to do so. This tact only serves to replace one set of stakeholders, those invested in virgin extraction, with another, those invested in supplying recyclables. In either case the stakeholders will subsequently work to preserve and protect their economic welfare from then on. We’re repeating the same error that was made when incentives to mine virgin resources were not set up to end once our goal of settling the West was achieved.
Successful economic systems which mimic natural systems will not care whether that mill manger uses a virgin or a secondary resource in his processes on any given day. He should do whatever is appropriate to the place and to the time. He should do so of free choice and because he is responsive to his community, not because he is mandated to do so regardless of the costs to his company or to his customers. Any government incentives set in place to drive entrepreneurs to integrate secondary resources into product manufacturing should then expire upon having accomplished that end.
We must develop material use policy in an integrated way. We must address the market demand for cedar which places such a high value on trees in the coastal rain force. We must find new ways to produce this cedar from smaller younger trees. We must find new materials to substitute for cedar. We must decrease the demand for wood to sustainable levels.
In Colorado, Louisiana-Pacific closed a wafer board mill in the Town of Kremmling in response to the Forest Service plan to decrease the harvest of trees in the area. Meanwhile, wood waste in Denver, Salt Lake City, and every other city in the region gets buried in landfills each day. This waste wood, combined with wood from trees, could feed that mill. It is not a matter of one extreme or the other, virgin or recycled. It must begin to become a matter of thinking deeply about the intelligent use of resources to support human populations.
We can build economic machines which serve the region and which are responsive to the environmental health of the region in which they reside. We must build systems which incorporate the mill manager, the community, the place, and an ethic tied to that place. We must get back in touch with the natural limits imposed upon man by the place in which he lives. We must close the loop by building systems which are local and sustainable. And we must confront our inherent drive to take those systems to larger levels which isolate them and us from our impacts on people, communities, and the land itself.
. When I ponder these things, I am always drawn with some remorse back to that misty evening in Seattle, so many years ago. Twenty years have passed and what has changed?
We’ve built a recycling system based on politics instead of conservation. Recycling has become a placebo which assuages our guilt and blinds us to the consumption of resources which is the ruin of the planet. We continue to measure our economic health based on housing starts and retail sales. We’ve saved some trees but left unfettered the markets which consume them and so the trees still get cut. They just come from far enough away that we don’t see them.
The environmental movement and its political allies have deliberately chosen to take a mindless approach to the creation of solutions. It’s all about stakeholders, political might, greed, and appearing to solve problems without asking anyone to change. I am reminded of the early industry attempts to simply hide the litter along the roadside. Were they right? Is it true that all we want is to hide our impacts from our own view? If so, perhaps Josie Razore was right. We were wasting our time. All that matters is rank deceit, making money, and getting ahead.
I see in my mind’s eye the tail lights of that black limo moving slowly down the rain swept street. I see the antique streetlights reflected in the glare of the wet pavement. I can see and feel the gray, low hung clouds closing us in. I recall, as though it were yesterday, Josie’s ominous words. I feel the mist and the sweat and the grimy bits of broken glass clinging to my skin. And I wonder now, who was the fool?
Author's Note: This essay was published by Island Press in The Next West, a collection of essays, in 1997. It's been many years since I wrote this essay but I think of it still as I observe the way in which we avoid really confronting environmental problems. We are putting off what we must inevitably deal with. Whether the issue is resource use, conservation, energy consumption, or global warming we're doing our best to pretend these limitations don't affect us. In the end, we'll pay the price. Well, on that dismal note, let me say no more.
Return to the Biography
James P McMahon Ecologist
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