Tag Archive for recyclables

Is it Recycling or Scavenging?

The article in Craines NY Business outlines a young entrepreneur who is getting rich on the labor of the less fortunate while he is probably undermining years of recycling education in the City of New York. There are really two questions here.

The first is that the company its relying on people scavenging (allegedly) through the unseparated garbage of certain commercial and apartment complexes to find redeemable cans and bottles.

gray market recycling operationOn its face, there are problems here. The fact that people are not separating the materials in the first place is a violation of City law. The fact that he is offering property owners a service that essentially says don’t do more to separate your recyclables as required by law is probably a violation of City Law. The fact that he is operating a gray market recycling operation without a Business Integrity Commission License is certainly a violation of the spirit of the law.

I am all for doing what can be done to enhance recycling in all locations. Recycling creates jobs and in many programs helps to employ low skilled laborers in meaningful employment while they perform a valuable service.

Unfortunately, this program relies on people to whom this “entrepreneur” is not offering any job benefits…wages, health benefits,etc…On whose earnings he does not pay any taxes as an employer is required to do. His “employees” make no contributions to their future social security or medicare payments and the company makes limited contributions to the local economy.

In many poor countries scavengers scour landfills and garbage dumps for recyclable materials and sell them to people like this gentleman. Is this really how we want to have recycling work in this country?

Let’s think again.

Read the full article:
Conrad Cutler built an empire on recycling cans. But he’s putting a dent in city revenue


San Francisco Recycling works…but we still get the words wrong.

First, let me say that San Francisco is a model of recycling that shows what people can do when they work together. It also shows that properly separated recyclables can be moved to market and that the entire process can be done cost effectively.

San Francisco requires residents to sort recyclables, compostables and garbage….three sorts in three cans. This type of sorting can and does work.

recyclablesOn these points the Times article gets it right. HOWEVER, I am still dismayed at the incorrect use of language, especially in the Science Times, when it comes to recycling. Words like Garbage Trucks, “recyclable garbage” and debris permeate the article. UGH….

Recyclable materials are NOT GARBAGE or DEBRIS….they are commodities. Until we get the language correct, we will not succeed in educating anyone about how to handle these materials.

Come on New York Times, you should know better.

Read the full article:
San Francisco, ‘the Silicon Valley of Recycling’
Limited free access; NY Times subscription may be required.


The Green Curtain Closes; Part II

As you may recall in my recent blog post, I noted that one of the problems with recycling today is the fact that we have become less responsible for the materials that we sort for recycling pick up. This observation was strongly supported in a recent article on the Green Curtain issue that was published in The Christian Science Monitor on June 19*.

As noted in the article, the Chinese Government has made it clear that they will no longer allow “foreign rubbish” into their country. Since the Green Curtain program has begun, more than 800,000 tons of illegal waste has been stopped by Chinese inspections.

This should bother us on several levels. The first is simply a human level. What gives us the right to send our garbage to another country where in many cases you have women making $15 per day using a box cutter to remove labels from soda bottles? If this were happening to women in this country, there would be a revolution.

The second level is deeper and relates to people’s behavior when it comes to handling their own generation of recycling and solid waste. Essentially, after all of these years of education on how to separate recycling from garbage, we still manage to contaminate the recycling component by more than 20% on average.

RecyclingWhy? In part it is because we have made it “easier” to recycle by allowing more and more commingling of materials. Thus, taking away generator responsibility for the materials that they generate while not teaching the generator how to keep garbage out of the recycling stream.

That system, commingling of recycling with different recycling can work, but only if there is a sound and consistent education program in place. Indeed, in the best programs, total contamination is less than 2% and that is captured before the material is shipped overseas.

But commingling is only a part of the issue, and as it is the norm today, we should focus on education as a solution to possible contamination of recyclables in that system.

The bigger problem as noted in the article relates to sheer volume. 75% of our Aluminum scrap. 60% of our paper and 50% of our plastic are shipped to China. This begs the question…why?

The answer is painfully clear; “Shipping companies, seeking to cut their losses, offer bargain rates on their westbound freighters: It is cheaper to ship a 40 foot container full of iron scrap from Los Angeles to a Chinese Port than it is to send it by train to a foundry in Chicago…”

If you were a dealer in these commodities, what would you do?

Compounding this problem, Robin Wiener, president of ISRI stated correctly that “If the U.S. border were closed, most of the scrap that is exported today would go to landfill…We don’t have the capacity to absorb it all.”

That’s right, the U.S. does not have enough recycling or manufacturing demand for all of the recyclable materials that we collect.

When the cost of transportation, and the lack of domestic manufacturing are taken into account, it is no wonder that we have become “over-dependent on China.” This of course means that if the Chinese markets drop, all recycling markets drop.

Where does this leave us? That is a big question.

Many of the big sorting companies are realizing that they need to put better sorting systems into place. These cost large amounts of money and notwithstanding their efforts, really cannot replace a good and consistent education program.

Here is a crazy notion. Support U.S. made products that are manufactured out of recycled materials. Yes, an idea as old as the recycling programs in the U.S. still seems to hold. It isn’t recycling until it is made into something new.

One thing is certain. If we in the U.S. do not change our pattern of recycling, the entire system is in jeopardy of economic collapse due to the contamination of the recycling stream.

*The article was found during my review of Enviropolitics. This publication, prepared by my friend and colleague Frank Brill, is an excellent source of information. It is a summary of major articles on environmental issues from publications throughout the U.S. If you are interested in this publication, you can get a 30 – day no obligation free trial by going to the link:

Click here for more information regarding Enviropolitics.