In a time of diminishing natural resources and increasing demand for goods, an economy based on repair, reuse and recycling makes sense from both an environmental and economic perspective. Recovery and reuse are much preferable to wanton consumption and subsequent disposal.

The National Recycling Coalition (NRC) has developed a total of 41 policies since its incorporation in 1978, with the ultimate goal of transforming a throw-away society into a circular one. While a handful of those policies have tumbled into obsolescence as the recycling landscape has evolved, many of those “old” positions have remained surprisingly relevant and become the foundation on which recently established policies have been built.

For example, early NRC policies advocated for:

  • A national waste reduction goal
  • Technical and financial support for local and state governments recycling infrastructure
  • Yard waste disposal bans
  • Uniform labeling guidelines for products
  • Standardized measurement criteria for waste production and recovery
  • Manufacturers evaluating the environmental liabilities or costs of their products
  • Cost effective recycling operations and facilities

Seeds of the hierarchy

Though all the concepts listed above continue to play important roles in our industry, perhaps the most resonant of NRC’s early position statements, at least among recycling and zero waste advocates, is the “Hierarchy of Waste Management Preferences.” The policy still serves as a basis for challenging issues confronting the industry here in 2016.

“The National Recycling Coalition endorses and supports a hierarchy of waste management preferences that gives first priority to source reduction, reuse, recycling, and composting to minimize the amount of waste to be otherwise managed,” the organization’s policy document reads.

It is this relatively simple and straightforward statement that provides the fundamental premise for the group’s recently adopted positions on waste-to-energy (WTE) and so-called “dirty MRFs,” materials recovery facilities that aim to separate recyclable materials from household trash.

In the midst of attacks and challenges from several fronts, NRC’s policies on mixed-waste processing systems and WTE have reinforced and substantiated the fundamental principles of recycling so eloquently described a number of years ago.

Recycling success comes down to quality and value. Be it PET plastic bottles, newspaper or leaves, processors need uncontaminated materials that can be transformed into affordable, high quality packaging or products that do the things they are expected to do. When it comes to recycling, as the old saying goes, you can’t make chicken salad out of chicken manure (though both might make good compost).

As new technologies emerge, we sometimes forget (or at least underestimate) that quality and value are also closely tied to process. When that process is complicated, made more expensive in the long run or results in inferior products, recycling fails and disposal suddenly seems like a good idea again. And while convenience is certainly an important factor in any recycling equation, it should not be the only one.

Aiming at weak systems

It is noteworthy that mixed-waste advocates picked their battles carefully, looking for the Achilles’ heel of recycling – communities that had struggled to implement successful recycling programs. Such systems were not proposed for Boulder, Colo. or Seattle. Instead, they came before decision-makers in places that had dreadful participation rates and systemic fatal flaws in their existing recycling programs.

Mixed-waste processing and waste-to-energy technologies initially fell into disfavor in some circles because of environmental concerns. Yet it has been the economic struggles of these technologies that have helped push recycling back to its rightful place as the most environmentally and economically sustainable way to handle our discards.

NRC ultimately came to support the Recycling Industries Coalition’s (RIC) stance on mixed-waste processing late last year. “Instead of relying on dirty MRFs, NRC urges communities to implement best practices for the separate collection of recyclables,” the organization wrote in an official statement. Firm stances by NRC, RIC, the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, the Glass Packaging Institute and the American Forest & Paper Association lent additional credibility to the outcries of protest from affected state recycling associations and other recycling advocates.

The closure of a dirty MRF in Montgomery, Ala. and the recent rejections of dirty MRFs in Indianapolis and Houston would seem to reinforce the contention that such facilities remain questionable investments and ineffective material recovery systems.

The irony of it all has to make you smile: Traditional recycling, framed as something that makes environmental sense, ends up making just as much sense economically.

John Frederick is a member of the NRC Board of Directors, serves on the NRC Policy Committee, and is the executive director of the Intermunicipal Relations Committee in Altoona, Pa.

The National Recycling Coalition (NRC) is North America’s leading nonprofit organization on issues of waste reduction, reuse, recycling, composting and buying recycled products. The NRC can’t do this important work without you – please consider supporting the organization with a tax-deductible donation of any size. Donate to help move recycling forward.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not imply endorsement by Resource Recycling, Inc. If you have a subject you wish to cover in a future Op-Ed, please send a short proposal to news@resource-recycling.com for consideration.