(Oct 2015) Eco-Products Response to NY Times Recycling Opinion Piece

On October 3, the New York Times published an opinion piece by John Tierney, entitled “The Reign of Recycling.” The article was extremely critical of recycling, questioning its environmental and economic benefits. Eco-Products believes this piece was misleading, one-sided, and deeply flawed. While we recognize that recycling is not perfect (what is?) and that sustainability challenges often encompass complexity and trade-offs, we believe the portrayal of recycling by Tierney was egregious in its misrepresentation.

Landfill Tour Picture

Landfills are neither pretty nor inherently cheap.

Issues that deserve addressing are numerous, such as:

  • Claiming it’s more expensive for cities to recycle material than to send it to landfills. This is unfortunately true in too many cases, but that is only because cities structure their contracts to pay waste management companies much more to landfill materials than to divert them. BioCycle recently did a great editorial on this issue, and the Closed Loop Fund provided specific examples of contracts incentivizing landfilling in its response.
  • Citing the closure of recycling facilities as evidence of dire straits. The Closed Loop Fund recently formed to pool $100M from companies like Coca-Cola, Walmart, P&G, and others to invest in recycling infrastructure. It would have been interesting to hear these companies’ perspectives on why they are devoting significant resources to recycling.
  • Highlighting the closure of a major composting facility due to odor as proof that commercial composting doesn’t work. Holding up one example of a mismanaged facility is not fair in light of the fact that there are hundreds of composting facilities effectively accepting and processing food scraps. Successful, large scale food composting operations can be found across the country, from Vermont, to Pennsylvania, to North Carolina, to Missouri, to Colorado, to Washington State.
  • Using life-cycle analysis to present a preferred conclusion. LCAs can be a valuable tool in assessing a product’s environmental impacts. They can also be bastardized to support any viewpoint by changing their inputs. Of course washing plastic in hot water before it is recycled increases the carbon footprint of recycling that product; Tierney claims this can negate recycling’s greenhouse gas benefits. First of all, if you are running the tap to heat water before rinsing a water bottle before putting it in the blue bin – just stop it. Second, what were the assumptions regarding how much hot water was used, and heated to what temperature? Absent transparency on those details, this argument should be viewed skeptically. The Closed Loop Fund bought the book Tierney referenced for this statistic, but it did not find a citation for the study.
  • Ignoring the fact we live on a planet with finite resources, a growing population, and an expanding middle class. We cannot continue to use the earth’s resources as we have been and expect millions of people to escape poverty. Global economic development is a good thing, but for better or worse, climbing the socio-economic ladder has historically gone hand-in-hand with increased consumption. The UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals recognize this and aim to eliminate poverty while also ensuring clean energy, safe water, and resilient infrastructure. We cannot achieve those goals if we don’t radically reimagine our current systems, including how we use the Earth’s resources. We need to stop treating used material as “waste” and start treating it as inputs to another system. Our friends at Eco-Cycle addressed this beautifully in their response to Tierney.

We could go on, but we primarily want to address the topic that upsets us the most: portraying methane emissions from landfills as a non-issue because landfill gas is being captured by modern technology. This is an important issue to us because when organic material, such as food, goes to a landfill, it rots and creates methane, a greenhouse gas over 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide. We are passionate about keeping food out of landfills, and we are fervent in our belief that compostable packaging can play a key role in this. We know it is unreasonable to expect the typical attendee of a baseball game, concert, or convention to separate their leftover food from a plate when they are looking to throw stuff “away.” This is why compostable packaging works – it allows the consumer to put their foodservice packaging and food scraps in one bin so it can all go to a commercial composter and get turned into valuable soil amendment.

In 1996, Federal regulations increased requirements for landfills to capture the gas emitting from their facilities due to decomposing trash. Despite this, methane from landfills was noted as the third-largest source of human-caused methane emissions in EPA’s 2015 report on sources of greenhouse gases, nearly 20 years after the stricter landfill gas laws went into effect.

EPA estimates that on average, 75% of landfill gasses are captured. This is far from perfect. EPA’s own website also states that landfill gas capture “is not in conflict with promotion of waste diversion and does not compete with waste reduction, recycling, and composting.” Landfill gas projects are intended to capture methane from waste that was not diverted; EPA is still advocating for keeping organics out of landfills. At a recent conference, EPA presented an overview of its 2017 – 2022 strategic plan for Sustainable Materials Management, for which composting and composting infrastructure will be a major focus.

True, landfill emissions pale in comparison to emissions from transportation or power plants, but they are not insignificant. And with climate change, we need all hands on deck. This is why California included composting in the scope of AB 32 - the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006. The state understands that keeping organics out of landfills is an important part of the solution to climate change. Beginning next year, California organizations that generate over a certain threshold of organic waste will be prohibited from sending that material to the landfill. California is joined by Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Vermont in passing similar laws. Many other studies and position papers can be found supporting the ban of organics from landfills.

In addition to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, composting organics also creates compost – a soil amendment that has been proven to increase soil health, support more robust plant growth, decrease the need for fertilizer and irrigation, and reduce run-off – among other benefits. We need healthy soil for agriculture, landscaping, flood control, and drought management. Does it make sense to send food scraps to the landfill instead of use them for such worthy causes?

We fully support freedom of the press and hearing differences of opinion. However, having a reasonable, productive dialog involves sharing sound evidence and not cherry-picking or misconstruing data. We welcome debates on the merits of solutions to our environmental challenges. This is necessary, given there are no silver bullets for today’s problems. Unfortunately the New York Times piece did not productively contribute to advancing the conversation.