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We Are Spending Too Much on Trash

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 3/11/2015 Paul Giebeig

Recently, some such as Dr. Thomas Kinnaman, Professor of Economics at Bucknell University, have argued that Americans are actually recycling too much of our trash. Dr. Kinnaman surmises that more environmental harm may be taking place in the name of recycling. In other words, the process of recycling, its carbon footprint, and the environmental impact of transforming material back to a useable state may actually outweigh the good that is being accomplished. While the professor does not hold a secret formula for the solution to the recycling conundrum, he does raise an important, although contrarian, point.
I recently completed a two-year stint in management at a recycling processing plant in Los Angeles for a Fortune 500 company. The plant that I managed was fairly efficient at recovering recycled materials and diverting them from the landfills; however, the price of processing these materials is astronomical for local municipalities, state governments, and private/public companies. In fact, some companies absorb the financial impact as if it is an advertising expense, primarily motivated by the positive public image that it projects. Almost no one is making money recycling curbside materials picked up from American private citizens. Even Waste Management's CEO stated earlier this year that recycling "isn't profitable." Now, I am not arguing that the economic needs of the industry trump the environmental needs that recycling is meant to assuage. However, the players in the game who are doing the actual recycling are doing it mostly for the money. Anyone can argue the importance of this function and its impact on the environment but if it is economically untenable, measures should be taken to reassess our approach.
Recycling is very important and everyone has a role but we are fooling ourselves if we think that simply separating waste when it is thrown away is sufficient for ensuring a sustainable system. With economic uncertainty in China, where most of the American recycled paper fiber goes, and increasing minimum wages driving up labor expenses, the cost of recycling in the U.S. is too high for many of those involved in the process. The result is an increase in "fudged" numbers that track diversion rates, unethical practices when claiming redemption value, and logistical nightmares that attempt to pick up, sort, sell, deliver, and ship material from places such as Colorado all the way to countries in Asia. Every good citizen wants to conserve our natural resources but who wants to work in a reeking industry only to see negative profits? Local and state governments struggle to track and control the process and yet they are pressured to throw more and more money into the industry in an attempt to achieve the mandated diversion rates.
But not everyone is losing money. In fact, some are finding it quite lucrative to accept the status quo. Since most people do not know enough to get involved they choose instead to trust the recycling companies to search for better solutions. Unfortunately, many of the largest recyclers in the U.S. do not feel so compelled to improve their practices since the vast majority of their profits actually come from the landfills they operate. Furthermore, over half of the garbage in the U.S. is collected by two major companies of which both own twice as many landfills than recycling facilities. How can recycling goals be achieved when companies make more money filling their landfills than they do when they recycle? So Americans continue to dutifully support an inefficient recycling process in response to the waste companies' advertisements touting the benefits of "Going Green." Much of the time, we are actually paying them to take our trash to their own landfills and ultimately feeding an industry valued at approximately $50 billion. Meanwhile, the waste industry executives are "Going Green" all the way to the bank.

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