ISRI Responds to Misinformed Claims About the State of Recycling in The New York Times

Oct 07, 2015

In a recent New York Times Magazine column (The Rein of Recycling, Oct. 3), John Tierney paints a confusing and misinformed picture of recycling, calling it “wasteful,” “ineffectual,” and “costly.”  The reality couldn’t be further from the truth.

The reality is that recycling in the United States is a vibrant activity and a key driver in domestic and global manufacturing, supplying more than 130 million tons annually of scrap metals, paper, electronics, plastics, rubber, glass, and textiles for manufacture into new products.  Mr. Tierney completely ignores the economic impact of this activity on the U.S. economy.  Recycling represents nearly $106 billion in annual economic activity and is responsible for 471,587 direct and indirect jobs in the U.S., generating more than $4.3 billion in state and local revenues annually, and another $6.76 billion in federal taxes.

Mr. Tierney also falls short in his analysis of the environmental impact of recycling. Nearly all independent studies, including those by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, have shown that recycling offers superior environmental benefits to landfilling and incineration. Further, utilizing recycled materials reduces energy requirements and greenhouse gas emissions in many manufacturing processes when compared to using virgin materials.

Yes, some segments of the recycling industry—particularly those that handle municipal recyclables—are experiencing unique challenges these days as a result of a changing business model and increasing quality concerns.  Decreased commodity prices combined with the decision of some municipalities to collect recyclables in the same bin as waste materials affect both the economics and the technological feasibility of recycling.  But that represents well less than half of the total recycling activity occurring in the U.S. each year. 

Unfortunately, by lumping everything together, Tierney sends the wrong message, effectively discouraging people from recycling altogether. This would be a major setback for society, and is why as an industry, we partner with organizations such as Keep America Beautiful to showcase the enormous environmental and economic benefits of recycling.  Let’s focus on what works and develop the processes and technology needed to expand recycling. Turning our backs on recycling altogether now would significantly hurt the U.S. balance of trade, the recycling industry, the environment, and sustainable materials management. That would be a major step backward for our country.

Robin Wiener is president of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries.

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