GRN Recycle Talk FAQ

Date: Wed Jan 29 1997 - 08:12:00 EST

Date: Wed, 29 Jan 97 13:12 WET
Subject: Re: History of Recycling (Wendy Hansen)

January 29, 1997

Dear Wendy Hansen,

The current wave of recycling interest emanates from several factors that occurred at about the same time. In 1989, US EPA put out The Solid Waste Dilemma: An Agenda for Action which, building on the report by Franklin Associates of 1986 and 1988 Characterization of MSW in the US, 1960-2000 and several Reports to Congress requested by Congress or mandated by regulations/laws,
proposed that the right way to manage solid waste was by a hierarchy with Source Reduction, then Recycling/Composting at the top - and preferred - before incineration and landfilling were resorted to, and which introduced the states to society-wide needs for better means of waste disposal and use. At around the same time, the notorious garbage barge plied its cargo from Long Island, NY to several countries on several continents
before having to return to the US to dispose of the materials. And that produced investigations of why it had been necessary in the first place; the conclusion was that in many parts of the country, there were lacks of disposal alternatives, and when tipping fees at landfills or incinerators were too high, this sort of situation happened. Also around the same time, there was a perception that current landfill capacity was inadequate and prices being/to be charged for disposal at them was rising too fast and too high; simultaneously,
it was perceived that the number of landfills that were out-of-compliance with then-current, or coming state and federal regulations, would have to close. To be replaced by what? The first answer, society-wide and in much of the mainstream press was recycling. Waste-to-energy companies made a protracted pitch for their improving technology, but ongoing concerns of the era (1989-1990) worried about the toxicity of WTE incinerator emissions and disposal alternatives for fly-ash and bottom ash. With landfills assumed to be shrinking in number
and near-term capacity, and incinerators requiring higher technological and applications fixes (e.g. getting toxic-bearing batteries and other materials out of the to-be-burned waste stream), the new emphasis was put on recycling.
There are other factors that contributed (the need to reauthorize the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act; new technologies emanating from Europe especially which aided by incineration and recycling, and social discussions about wasteage, renewable resources, etc; industry needs for new sources of raw materials for certain products which could be easily supplied from recyclables; and a matter of national pride: studies showed in 1988, that Americans were generating far more than their fair share of garbage than were other highly industrialized countries).
The previous period had not been dormant either with regard to solid waste management: a few major cities and large or prosperous towns had been recycling throughout the 1980s, with results that could be used as models. Balers and shredders, compactors and other equipment had been developed or improved for use on certain parts of the waste stream to improve its ability to be handled. And bottle bills and laws had already been suggesting that some waste materials could be easily reused; their continuation meant that there was a market for significant fractions of the packaging stream. Therefore,
the reasoning would go, why not other segments of packaging and MSW for recycling?

Markets did not initially play a major factor in deciding on recycling. Investment and financing, market development and remanufacturing all came later.

Good discussions of this history and inevitably more factors than I can discuss typing on this website can be found in:

 Knee-deep and rising: America s recycling crisis by Lodge and Rayport in Harvard Business Review, Sept-Oct, 1991.
 Solid Waste Management: Historical and future perspectives by William Kovacs in Resources, Conservation and Recycling, #8, 1993.
WAR ON WASTE by Blumberg and Gottleib (Island Press, 1989) See esp: Chapter 7.

This is only the American story: the US was governmentally and regulatorily functionally out of the MSW business throughout the Reagan years. Europe on the other hand was very much involved. The issue, for example, that designing products by manufacturers should include design for recyclability and for producer take-back was very much a fact of European waste management teaching and some practice. The Institute of Metals published Design for Recyclability by a professor at the University of Nottingham in 1988. Recycling conferences had taken place through the International Solid Waste Association, throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. American had to re-learn the technological and
marketing possibilities in the late 80s mostly on the basis of European sources.

All of the items I ve mentioned (and many other relevant ones that I didn t) are in the Research Library for RCRA, at US EPA New England, which itself was founded in mid-1989 in response to our regional perception of the crisis that was going to be rising in solid waste.

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