Value Added By Recycling Industries in Massachusetts (1992, Robin Ingenthron) - What John Tierney Failed to Learn about Garbage

Value Added By Recycling Industries in Massachusetts (1992, Robin Ingenthron)

This is kind of a hoot.  Dr. Josh Lepawsky found a paper I wrote my first months in the job at MA DEP, 30 years old, 25 years ago. It got Boston Globe front page coverage because of ricochet.   A loud PIRG vs. Plastic Packaging Industry referendum fight had thrust "recycling" into a spotlight, and the value of "recycling" rather than the packaging policy itself, was occupying the center stage.  Critics of the referendum were attacking state recycling policy, and proponents of the packaging laws were wrapping themselves in recycling like it was mom, apple pie, and the American flag.

To defend recycling as a policy, I tried to explain that there aren't "good markets" and "bad markets".  There are "buyers markets" and "sellers markets", and from an economic perspective, the paper mills, glass furnaces, metal refiners, etc. were adding more value than "waste diversion" from landfills.  So I got some secondary data on the recycled paper mills etc. that I'd supplied as a recycling collector, added up their employees, and explained the multiipliers.

The paper doesn't do so explicitly, but buried in it was my first realization that paper mills might be worse "neighbors", environmentally (odor, water effluent) than an incinerator or landfill, but they created so many jobs that the neighborhoods surrounding those mills were advocates.  Environmental enforcement was linked, geographically, to real estate value.  Likewise, those same jobs, which would disappear in Massachusetts if the tissue paper had to be made from trees, were far more important economically than the value of a ton of paper at a recycling center.

I was initially accused of writing the paper to influence the referendum (and threatened, professionally). I responded that the paper mill employees and those like me who'd been driving paper recycling trucks were kind of bemused... I might next leak the number of laundromats in MA and see if that got in the Globe.  And four years later, this paper was called upon to rebut John Tierney's "Recycling is Garbage" rant, which in part arose out of the very anti-recycling statements being made during the Packaging Referendum Wars (which employed many Bottle Bill Battle generals... history for another blog).

Anyway I long ago lost track of the paper, Josh found it at the MA State House library.

The paper was partly written on a Mac SE at my house overnight (word processing), and partly on "Lotus" spreadsheets, over 3 days. at my new office at 1 Winter Street (it was a converted broom closet, but everyone else was in cubicles so it was "prestigious"... 4 years later I got a corner window office on the 9th floor).  

I haven't re-read the whole thing, but after reviewing the first page, I believe it was perhaps the most important thing I wrote policy-wise.   As misinformation about the "recycling glut" story and "bad recyclable prices" and the myth of energy loss (from recycling trucks) were spreading, one town even (allegedly) dumped all their newsprint in the landfill (or say they did, some of us never saw evidence the guy - I think in Weymouth MA DPW? - ever did it, but it became a national anecdote).  

This was arguably a better written paper than Institute for Local Self Reliance's response to John Tierney's first anti-recycling rant four years later.  Tierney's arguments still have believers, like Mark J. Perry of AEI.   I completely agree with AEI on the topics of protectionism and globalization, but Perry is absolutely wrong about Tierney's anti-recycling paper, and maybe he'll find time to read the report above, and see how recycling succeeds in a free market, and how it does better in nations which have NO federal land subsidies, for the same reasons as it was succeeding in Massachusetts.  The poorer a city is, the more it recycles.  Urban areas go through an ugly period of affluence when they start to shut down "Junkyards", but as Adam Minter argues, we need to embrace junkyards and recycling and see where social snobbery pays for waste trucks that do NOT add value to raw materials which already have value.  I might agree with Perry, as a side note, on recycling programs that collect glass but crush it as "daily cover" for landfills.  It would be better just to put whole bottles in the landfill than to spend energy crushing them up.   Recycling a bottle into a new bottle is great, but feldspar is pretty cheap.  The point being I welcome dialectic and reasonable debate on the subject.

AEI should also note that the orignal pro-recycling policy (pre-Tierney) paper was more careful not to make claims that recycling jobs were the only jobs.  Toilet paper manufacturers in Massachusetts (e.g. Erving and American Tissue) woulld close without recycling, but toilet paper manufacturers in tree-rich areas like Oregon were also "adding value" and "jobs" without recycling.  My claim was that recycling was a rational policy in a state like Massachusetts, and it was dead on.

It is also worthwhile to debate whether recycling policy makes sense in other geographies - for example, on an island without a paper mill.  An interesting geography article might be on "island recycling", because people who retire to islands in expensive real estate tend to expect the same recycling services, and in the 90s there was a whole consulting industry on "island recycling programs" to create curbside in Puerto Rico, St. Thomas, Hawaii, etc.   Consultants kept promising they could bring islands - which had no paper mills or glass furnaces, etc. - a stateside recycling program.  I argued against those studies, said they were lavish and costly and could not ever justify the costs of shipping anything but metals.

Some geography student could probably find a lot of island recycling articles and predict why Guangzhou is a REAL recycling market and that Haiti is not, and that therefore poverty as a "driver" is at best a weak correlative.   Also many islands have very rigorous environmental enforcement, and many have none, so the theory of weak environmental enforcement being a "driver" is probably testable in some SPSS program.  And your auto battery data (which Puckett criticizes as not being "e-waste") would presumably capture whether auto battery recycling practices are driven by population per thousand square kilometers (is there a word for that? It would capture how even an apparently crowded island is geographically trade constrained).

Sorry to ramble.  Just glad to see the paper again, it was seminal, and also demonstrates how a political opportunity (MassPIRG running a Packaging Initiative vs. Associated Industries of MA and Big Plastic) creates an environment where you can insert information that's otherwise not interesting to journalists.  Puckett vs. Big Electronics and created many of the same windows for bloggers and academics to pursue.

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