My Life In Footnotes: Value Added Recycling Jobs '92

"Value Added by Recycling Industries in Massachusetts" was an article I published in July 1992, in my first few months of my appointment as "Recycling Director" at Massachusetts DEP.  Footnotes to the report live on, and I feel sure I must have a hard copy somewhere, but I cannot find it online any longer.

Drive around the parking lots of your competitors.

Count the cars.

Use the cars to estimate the number of employees.

Some staff may be absent, some may have carpooled, some processors may be more efficient than others. But generally, if you circle 100 paper recyclers parking lots, the ones with just a few cars are less likely to be baling the same amount of material.  The larger ones will actually bale more per employee or more per car perhaps (due to larger, higher efficiency balers), and the smaller ones may employ more people per ton.  But you have a point of reference.

When I came to work for the government, I thought that I would show people the importance of the private recycling companies and their infrastructure.  So I took all the companies, found their employment data, and calculated the gross tonnage in MA.   Or I got their gross tonnage and calculated an estimate for their employment.

It hit the cover of the Boston Globe twenty years ago this year.    MassPIRG took the calculation of jobs and made the "recycling creates jobs" into something to support their packaging law.   There were angry calls from Governor Weld's office about unauthorized press releases.  I was reprimanded by people who had asked me to leak the information.   It was a crisis, a crisis.  Then 7 other papers were published within a couple of years stating the same thing "Recycling Creates Jobs".

Did recycling "create" those jobs?  That's not exactly what I said in my paper.

But close.  It is true that if we stopped recycling, those jobs would be lost.  And its true that there is no "good" market and "bad" market, it's a "buyer's" market and a "seller's" market.  I was trying to say that recycling is a system which always creates winners in the free and fair trade market.

If you take something that already has value - like used office paper - that the value can be preserved, which is an advantage to someone who is employing people.   Office paper are tree fibers which have been bleached whiter than snow, and if you can float away the ink, the value of the bleach in the fiber remains. It's slightly obvious.  The Massachusetts paper mills couldn't compete with much larger mills being built close to the trees in Canada, so they survived by scrounging... by finding fiber that was already bleached, easier to pulp, from the cities they were closer to.  They didn't do it to "save trees" any more than Hamdy in Egypt repairs monitors to "divert e-waste from landfills".   If the MA mill can get virgin pulp for cheaper than recycled fiber, they will.  If Hamdy can get newer display devices for less than the cost of used, he will too.

In 1992, I was just trying to tell a little story about the family companies and mills and small businesses that were already out there recycling.  I told the folks at DEP that the next day I'd announce the existence of Laundromats in Massachusetts, how many clothes they allowed to be reused, how they had freed women to enter the workforce, etc., and see if that also got onto the front page of the Boston Globe.

But if we get rich enough, or the cost of brand new clothes gets cheap enough, washing won't disappear.   As that happens, thrift shops will open to capture the clothes that used to be re-sewn or re-washed.  Duh.  When rich people stopped sewing buttons back on, Goodwill and Salvation Army thrived.  The same is happening with repairable computers.

A paper mill rich in free trees is less likely to recycle than an older, more obsolete paper mill close to a city.  Environmental justice needs to keep distinct whether the "injustice" is the poverty or the jobs available.  Jobs reduce poverty.  Whether the poor person is chopping down a tree or sorting waste paper is not a question of "justice".

When you say something simple and true, it has a way of getting sucked into the engine of political agendas.   Poor people are more likely to have recycling and repair jobs than they are to be astronauts or movie stars.   The mistake is to think that the recycling job is what is making the person poor.  There are a limited number of astronaut jobs and movie star jobs, and if you take away someone's recycling job, they are more likely to go down a notch than up a notch.

That seems to be a very controversial statement, one which has been boiled down to me not caring if children are poisoned, or of "dumping on the poor".  

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