Oregon DEQ Response to John Tierney’s New York Times opinion piece, "The Reign of Recycling"
Wednesday, October 28, 2015
Posted by: Anne Piacentino
Source: Oregon Department of Environmental Quality Response
Posted: Oct. 15, 2015.
On Oct. 3, 2015, The New York Times published an opinion piece (“The Reign of
Recycling” by John Tierney) critical of recycling. Several local governments have asked
DEQ for its response to that review. Other organizations, such as the Closed Loop Fund,
have already published detailed rebuttals. Rather than a detailed, point-by-point analysis,
we focus here on the Oregon context, and the extent to which Tierney’s criticisms apply –
or not – to recycling in Oregon.
Does Recycling Protect the Environment? Is it a Waste of Time?
Tierney writes, “If you live in the United States, you probably do some form of recycling .
. . you probably assume that recycling is helping your community and protecting the
environment. But is it? Are you in fact wasting your time? In 1996 . . . I presented plenty
of evidence that recycling was costly and ineffectual, but its defenders said that it was
unfair to rush to judgment . . . So what’s happened since then? When it comes to the
bottom line, both economically and environmentally, not much has changed at all.”
This implies that recycling does not protect the environment and is uneconomical as well.
Is recycling bad for the environment? The most comprehensive evaluation of
environmental impacts of recycling vs. disposal is a series of meta-analyses
commissioned by WRAP in the United Kingdom. Researchers reviewed more than 200
life-cycle analyses comparing environmental impacts of recycling against impacts of
landfilling and found – where data is of sufficient quality to support conclusions – that
recycling is typically environmentally preferable. DEQ’s own meta-analysis of food waste
studies demonstrates that aerobic composting and anaerobic digestion are preferable to
landfilling from the perspective of greenhouse gas emissions and soil health.
Recycling conserves resources (including energy) and reduces pollution (including
greenhouse gases). Waste recycling by Oregon households and businesses in 2010 saved
an estimated 29 trillion BTUs of energy (the equivalent of roughly 230 million gallons of
gasoline) and reduced greenhouse gas emissions by roughly 3.4 million metric tons of
carbon dioxide equivalents – comparable to the tailpipe emissions from more than
600,000 average passenger cars.
Is recycling a waste of money? While it costs money to recycle, so does the alternative. In
discussing economic costs and benefits, it’s important to consider full costs, not just the
hard transaction costs that are included in the garbage bill. For example, greenhouse gas emissions result in social costs, such as changes in net agricultural productivity, human
health, property damages from increased flood risk, and changes in energy system costs,
such as reduced costs for heating and increased costs for air conditioning. The federal
government estimates that reducing one metric ton of CO2 equivalent (in 2015) results in
social benefits of $12 to $120 (depending on choice of discount rate and statistic). If
Oregon’s recycling in 2015 reduces greenhouse gas emissions as much as it did in 2010,
social benefits from one year’s worth of recycling range from $38 million to $378 million.
These represent the economic benefits of GHG reductions only and not other
environmental benefits, which may be even larger.
Recycling Paper and Metal Makes Sense. What About Plastics and Food?
Tierney makes repeated criticisms of expanding recycling programs to address materials
such as plastics and food. For example, he states, “As cities move beyond recycling paper
and metals, and into glass, food scraps and assorted plastics, the costs rise sharply while
the environmental benefits decline and sometimes vanish.”
While the costs of recycling plastic and food may be higher than paper and metal, the
environmental benefits are still very significant. An analysis by DEQ in 2011 looked at
potential energy savings and greenhouse gas reduction that could be accomplished by
recycling materials that are being thrown away each year. Of all materials, plastics had
the highest potential for energy savings, and was also one of the more significant
materials regarding greenhouse gas reduction, partly since plastic is such a high-energy
material and so much of it is thrown away. Food waste composting did not provide any
energy savings, but composting the food waste ranked second highest for greenhouse gas
reduction of all materials being thrown away, right behind paper. This is because of the
large amount of methane quickly generated in landfills when food waste is disposed, a
significant portion of which escapes to the atmosphere before gas collection can begin. It
was this analysis that was the impetus for food waste, plastic, and carpet (made mainly
from plastic) to be targeted for increased recovery in Oregon’s Senate Bill 263, passed in
Tierney goes on to criticize plastics recycling by comparing it to flying. “To offset the
greenhouse gas impact of one passenger’s round-trip flight between New York and
London, you’d have to recycle roughly 40,000 plastic bottles, assuming you fly coach.”
Yet while most Oregonians (and Americans) don’t enjoy the privilege of flying to
London, every household and business in Oregon has materials that can be recycled. In
fact, the greenhouse gas benefits of recycling by Oregonians in 2010 (reductions in
emissions of 3 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent) is almost equal to the
global emissions of all air travel by Oregonians to all destinations (not just New York or
London) in that same year (3.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent).1
Are Recovery Goals Higher than 35 Percent Ill Advised?
Tierney states “The national rate of recycling rose during the 1990s to 25 percent, meeting
the goal set by an E.P.A. official, J. Winston Porter. He advised state officials that no more than about 35 percent of the nation’s trash was worth recycling, but some ignored
him and set goals of 50 percent and higher. Most of the goals were never met . . . “
Oregon was one of the states to ignore J. Winston Porter's advice. Oregon's recycling rate
was about 27 percent in 1991, when the state first set a goal of 50 percent recovery by
2000. By 1996, when Tierney wrote his first article, Oregon's recovery rate was 35
percent and by 2000, its recovery rate climbed to 39 percent. However, recycling did not
stagnate as Tierney has claimed, but instead continued to climb. By 2005, Oregon’s
recovery rate was 45 percent, and by 2013, the state reached 50 percent recovery. About
half of this recovery comes from private commercial recycling/recovery, such as scrap
metal dealers, wood waste recyclers, yard debris composters, paper mills and larger
retailers who sell their recyclables directly to mills. The remainder comes from the public
recycling programs that Tierney criticizes, such as curbside recycling. Regardless of how
the materials are collected, they clearly have recycling value; if they didn’t, private
companies would not be profiting by recycling them. Fortunately, Oregon ignored the
advice of John Tierney and J. Winston Porter and has continued to expand and improve
Does Recycling Contribute to Pollution?
While acknowledging that recycling can reduce pollution, Tierney states that “recycling
operations have their own environmental costs, like extra trucks on the road.” The extra
trucks are necessary to collect separated recyclables and transport them to market. While
recycling trucks burn fossil fuels and create pollution, their impacts are very small and
easily justified when one looks at the big picture. For example, a DEQ analysis for the
City of Portland found that collecting 100 tons of separated recyclables from households
(in a separate truck) results in roughly six metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent
(greenhouse gases). These are life-cycle fuel emissions representing both emissions when
the fuel is burned in the engine, as well as emissions from extracting, refining and
transporting it to the pump. When those 100 tons of separated recyclables pass through a
sorting facility and eventually on to recycling end-markets (paper mills, steel mills, etc.)
the resulting reduction in greenhouse gas emissions is almost 40 times higher: 232 metric
tons of CO2e. So yes, while recycling collection trucks contribute to pollution, these
impacts are small when compared to the much larger benefits that they make possible.
Not All Recycling is Equal
Tierney points out that the environmental benefits of recycling different materials vary;
not all recycling is the same. This is consistent with DEQ’s understanding, and is why
DEQ proposed and supported Oregon’s Senate Bill 263 (2015), which among other
changes, directs Oregon to begin calculating local waste recovery rates not only on the
basis of tons of material (where all materials are treated the same) but also environmental
outcomes, such as energy savings. This new approach, which DEQ proposes to implement
by 2017, will provide local program managers a more refined understanding of the
relative environmental benefits of different waste recovery programs, methods and
Is “Zero Waste” a Bad Idea?
Tierney criticizes political leaders in San Francisco, Seattle, New York and elsewhere for
advocating for “zero waste.” Oregon has not adopted a “zero waste” goal or framework
for some of the reasons that Tierney highlights: diminishing returns and increasing costs
as recovery rates approach 100 percent. (DEQ’s other concerns with “zero waste” are
summarized in this paper). Viewed from the perspective of the entire life cycle, there are
some materials and some circumstances where landfill disposal will be the best option –
both environmentally and economically. But that does not mean that current recovery
programs (in Oregon or elsewhere) are necessarily optimal, or that waste recovery
programs should not be further expanded or improved. As of 2010, nearly one third of the
materials Oregonians disposed of as garbage consisted of readily recoverable materials,
including cardboard, plastic bottles, and aluminum and steel cans.
Oregon Businesses Depend on Recycling
One aspect Tierney didn’t discuss is the importance of recycling to local economies.
Many Oregon businesses depend on recycling. The state has a steel mill that depends on
scrap metal; paper mills that produce new paper from cardboard, office paper and junk
mail; a glass plant that produces bottles from old bottles; and a plastic plant that takes all
plastic collected under the Oregon Bottle Bill and turns it into feedstock for making new
bottles or other plastic items. These businesses depend on the recyclables we collect, as
do the collection companies and processors who handle those materials.
Oregon has been a leader in recycling, first with the Bottle Bill in 1971, followed by the
first statewide Recycling Opportunity Act in 1983, and then continuing with statewide
Materials Management legislation (Senate Bills 245 and 263) this year. DEQ supports
recycling when it makes sense: when it helps reduce pollution, saves money and
conserves natural resources. Recycling continues to have long-term value. So Tierney's
implication that recycling is wasteful does not hold true for the recycling occurring in
Oregon. In contrast, paying many dollars per ton to have these recyclables collected as
garbage and thrown away would be a real waste.