While factions squabble over such big ticket political items as health care, climate change and job creation, there is an answer that could help all fronts without ramming into core partisan issues: recycling. A federal course to mandate recycling and the use of recycled content would provide benefit to numerous areas on the administration’s agenda.
Many view the recent past as not being the federal government’s finest hour. The traffic jam of partisan politics has forced numerous efforts on Capitol Hill to progress at a crawl. Congress members continue to suggest drastic, sweeping changes to different areas of the economy while the country emerges from a recession. After hours are spent pitching changes that make such a big splash the inevitable occurs and efforts at compromise are discarded in deference to a defiant standoff—which accomplishes nothing.
Climate legislation has been on the table in many forms for the better part of a year. Debates about health care run in circles with dim signs of real progress. Even a jobs bill has stalled as it is punted back and forth between parties. While each of these endeavors are noble, and perhaps even necessary, the scale of their goals is limiting their current chances of success. Even if every one of these pursuits represents a positive evolution of our country, if nothing ever comes from all of this effort then it will be remembered as nothing more than an academic waste of taxpayer money. We elect our government officials to debate issues as a means of arriving at solutions, not to only debate.
Recycling proposes a midpoint, a common ground that can serve as a springboard for future action and provide a foundation for progress that can actually produce results in the short term. To do this, it is integral to not only require the separation of trash, but that using recycled material as a percentage of content for new products is also deemed necessary. Part of the problem with the recycled materials industry now is the fluctuation of both supply and demand. In order to provide a net gain to the economy, both sides would have to be addressed to bolster the marketplace.
Given that recycling has not received federal funding nor has it ever been mandated by the federal government, it can be considered a grass roots movement where state governments have supplemented resident goals of having a more efficient lifestyle. The industry has achieved tremendous progress over the past 30 years to earn a notable place within the greater economy. According to a study done by the EPA, as of 2002 the recycling and reuse industry had $236 billion in sales and employed over 1.1 million Americans (over twice the combined total of Ford, GM and Chrysler in 2008).
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans recycled only 33.2% of our waste in 2008. One third of our aluminum supply and two thirds of steel made in the U.S. comes from recycled material. Recycled material is also one of our countries largest exports with 44 million tons distributed to over 150 nations—especially China—but the industry has felt the weight of the recession.
Think of the recycling industry like the sanitation industry only better, smarter and not as expensive. The problem with sanitation/waste removal is that it is nothing more than a black hole of cost. Money is required to collect it and more is needed to dump it, only to have it sit in the ground for eternity. Although it costs money to collect recycled materials, they can then be sorted and sold back on the open market to companies in need of raw materials for production, thereby lowering the overall cost of the industry—maybe someday even turn a profit. Eventually, these waste streams could replace most of the need to harvest new materials from the earth.
Perhaps most importantly in the current state of political parley, recycling occupies a nominally neutral position in partisan issues. Recycling does not threaten to put coal companies out of business despite being a proactive step for environmental stewardship. Unlike the debated nature of climate change and carbon emissions, most Americans can agree than recycling makes sense as a wise practice for our collective future. This is most likely partly because when it comes to sustainability, recycling is one of the oldest efforts to mitigate our ecological footprint. Nearly a full generation has witnessed the rise and growing acceptance of recycling in our culture. Not only would recycling find little resistance amongst politicians, but the relative arm twisting for constituents would probably be minimal.
Like its cousins of sanitation and waste management, recycling represents an infrastructural system. However, unlike its older and larger brethren, recycling is still in its adolescence on the national level. While some states or individual cities have excelled ahead to easily recycle over a third of their waste many townships have no option for separating trash targeted for reuse. This system would have to be built which in turn would create jobs.
Collection, sorting, shipping and reprocessing material would all need new employees at new facilities to handle increasing loads. New collection trucks could be designed with the greenest technology available—promoting manufacturing. With demand increasing and product supply growing, money driven towards research and development to perfect recycling processes and increase its effectiveness would soon follow. The result is an effort that helps sustainability efforts permeate into the entire economy, not just one or two select industries.
Furthermore, the nice thing about recycling is that it does not make jobs by killing others. Increasing the percentage of waste stream shifted towards recycling does not negate the need for sanitation and waste disposal. By in large, the number of jobs created should far outweigh the number sacrificed in fortifying a recycling industry.
Reuse is a healthy option. At this point our society knows enough about the environment to know why landfills are bad. We know the health risks associated with polluted water sources from chemicals seeping from buried waste. The decomposition of plastics in particular releases harmful compounds into a variety of ecosystems that eventually traces their damage back to humans. In many cases, recycling saves energy and, in doing so, lessens the health problems associated with a large portion of our power production methods. The process of mining, refining and burning coal can be linked to issues of cancer, asthma and tooth decay.
Changing the Climate:
I saved this point for last because it is rather obvious. Recycling and upcycling (confused on the difference? Look at recycling vs. upcycling) are an emulation of ecological functions that return materials towards their source and balance the inflows and outflows to accommodate use patterns. The practice can drastically reduce the amount of virgin stock that we need to cut down, dig up, drill towards, refine and ship—all of which requires energy and a tax on the natural environment.
The Institute for Local Self Reliance (ISLR) reports that the amount of energy saved by recycling vs. using virgin stock:
- 95% for aluminum
- 85% for copper
- 80% for plastic
- 74% for iron and steel
- 64% for paper
The numbers are significant—enough to make one think how much manufacturing energy we could save if we recycled all of our waste stream.
So what’s the catch?
Well of course there is a catch. Actually a few of them. Creating a comprehensive recycling program across the country is a tricky proposition with its own share of hurdles. Even if most of the country would agree that recycling efforts should be increased, the federal government would have a difficult time instituting such feelings into law.
The largest dilemma is the crossing of boundaries between federal and state government responsibilities. Recycling, like sanitation, is handled on a local level and not overseen by the federal government. Individual states, sometimes even individual towns, handle recycling differently to organize contracts with companies for removal and processing of recyclable waste. For the same reason that congress would be loathe to institute national renewable energy standards (states currently decide on their own what percentage of energy should come from renewable sources by a given date) the idea of a law mandating recycling could levy unequal burdens on different states.
One option is that the government could pass an unfunded mandate that essentially requires states to comply with a regulation while making them also responsible for paying for it. Given the current economic landscape and the fact that states are already running budget deficits this would likely not be received well—nor would lawmakers ever risk constituent backlash by passing it. Another option would be to create a federal regulation (similar to the Clean Water Act) and provide stimulus funding to help states build out their individual recycling programs. The closest example to such an action may be the erection of the interstate highway systems that ended up using $425 billion (2006 dollars) of federal money to create a system that is managed and maintained by the states.
After that, prospects run into the issue of enforcement. Who would react when an organization refused to separate their waste for recycling and what would the result be? Legislation like the Clean Air Act or the Clean Water Act have jurisdiction rested on the shoulders of the EPA. The fact that the Clean Water Act has been violated 506,000 times since 2004 displays how difficult (and perhaps unsuccessful) it is to manage federal enforcement of a local issue.
What is really needed is something that does not exist: a uniform agreement between state governments that action in this direction is beneficial and necessary for the country. For as integrated as we would like to think our country is, it would be more likely to see such an action rise as new European Standards. I will point out that I am not saying that things like a comprehensive climate bill are not worth pursuing or examples of changes that our country does need to make. However, for whatever number of reasons our current congress seems incapable of progress. Rather than waste two and a half more years, perhaps we can lower the bar in an attempt to start generating some forward momentum. For now, the slow road to recycling is the only choice we have so buying products with recycled content (especially those that you are buying anyway like paper towels, tissues, printer paper) can help shift the industry in a sustainable direction.
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