Blue Bags, Red Flags | Book Review | Chicago Reader

Blue Bags, Red Flags 

How a favorite civic cause greases the pollution machine.

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Allan Schnaiberg used to think that recycling could lead us to the promised land. He thought it offered not just environmental benefits (by reducing the amount of garbage going to landfills and incinerators), but also economic benefits (by allowing people in a community to make money from waste) and equity benefits (by providing decent jobs for poor people in a community). He saw these benefits as mutually reinforcing, and he thought that if all three Es--environment, economics, and equity--could be achieved at once, recycling could help people realize that all three are equally important and not in conflict. Recycling would then be seen as more than just a holding action against litter or just one more environmental activity. It could start people thinking and working in a new and better way. "It was a kind of golly-gee-whiz thing," the Northwestern University sociologist says, "like the story about the janitor in the burlesque house on payday--'You mean I get paid too?'"

But after studying the subject and coauthoring a book on it, Schnaiberg has concluded that recycling as now practiced is leading us away from the promised land, not toward it. He examined ongoing recycling programs such as Chicago's blue-bag system and Ken Dunn's Resource Center, deceased efforts such as Uptown Recycling and job training at the Evanston Recycling Center, and stillborn proposals such as the Maywood Recycling Industrial Park. He found that the recycling programs that have survived and grown don't deliver the three Es. Instead, they do less for the environment than they originally promised, they siphon economic benefits out of the community, and they provide poor-quality jobs.

"Our account of recycling differs substantially from popular views of recycling as an activity generated by the goodwill of people who are trying to do something beneficial for society," Schnaiberg and his coauthors, Adam Weinberg and David Pellow, warn in their book Urban Recycling and the Search for Sustainable Community Development. "Recycling has become a commodity-based, profit-driven competitive industry in which large private firms using public dollars are squeezing the life out of smaller nonprofit and family-owned recyclers. Some programs achieve modest economic gains but distribute them primarily to the private sector. Ecological gains are modest." When the authors start talking like that about the most popular environmental cause ever, you know the story won't have a happy ending.

Recycling as we know it was shaped by a half-forgotten struggle over disposable packaging that began decades ago. Throwaway cans and bottles began making inroads into the market during the 1950s and '60s, and in the '70s environmentalists began pushing for bottle bills. These bills were intended to legally enforce the once-universal system in which consumers paid a few cents extra deposit on their containers and then got a refund when they returned the empties to be reused. Bottles would make dozens of round trips.

Deposit and recycling programs are rooted in fundamentally different environmental philosophies. The deposit system is based on the assumption that containers can be reused as they are. Recycling programs rest instead on the assumption that used glass bottles, for instance, must be broken up and remanufactured into new bottles or other glassware—a process that uses more energy than reusing them, and creates more pollution than simply washing and refilling them.

The two programs also differ profoundly when it comes to economics. The deposit system embodied in bottle bills harnesses the power of money, because consumers who choose convenient throwaway packaging pay up front, in their deposit, for the cost of dealing with it. If they throw away the empties, their deposits are still waiting at the store or collection center to pay scavengers who gather and return them. In a well-run deposit system, people don't need to be guilt-tripped or browbeaten to get them to clean up any more than they need to be reminded to pick up money lying in the street. Nor do taxpayers have to shell out for extra trucks and garbage workers to collect recyclables. Properly set up, the process is self-financing.

The deposit system could be used even with kinds of waste that can't be reused the way glass bottles can be, such as newspapers. A nickel deposit, say, on each Tribune would encourage people to gather up and return them. Middlemen could pay scavengers, return old newspapers to the Tribune Company, and claim the deposit, rather than depending for the program's support on the volatile market for used paper, as today's recycling operations must. The same thing goes for plastic bottles. If the producers find dealing with these returns a burden, that's an incentive for them to find ways to reuse the items or to use less material in the first place. (A recycling center victimized by fluctuating prices for used paper can't choose to use more of it to print the next day's newspapers.)

Such a system wouldn't be perfect or cost free. But the deposits would do double duty: they would provide a cash incentive to do the right thing, and they would ensure that those who benefit from the convenience of throwaways help pay the social cost of dealing with litter.

Orthodox free-market economists agree that consumers should pay the full cost of their choices in this way. But real-world packagers, bottlers, and retailers are more interested in making money than in following orthodox economic theory. "What industry wants to raise the price of its product?" asks Schnaiberg. In the 1970s and '80s industrial and retail interests spent millions fighting bottle bills and succeeded in defeating them in most states. In a notorious 1982 California campaign—described by Louis Blumberg and Robert Gottlieb in the book War on Waste—the Glass Packaging Institute, Can Manufacturers Institute, and individual packaging companies swung the vote with a series of brazenly false TV commercials. "Consumers" who later proved to be employees of bottle-bill opponents were interviewed in Oregon supermarkets saying that Oregon's bottle bill had been a disaster, when in fact more than 90 percent of the public there supported it.

The packaging industry still opposes deposits, but it now prefers to undermine support for them by promoting standard recycling. Its nonprofit mouthpiece, Keep America Beautiful, Inc., promotes volunteer cleanups through its hundreds of state and local affiliates. Its Web site, kab.org, reminds us that it produced the 1971 "crying Indian" public-service ad ("People Start Pollution, People Can Stop It"), and it now gives out an Iron Eyes Cody Award, named for the actor in that ad. Last year the award went to a Texas waste-company manager who'd created a "Captain Waste" hero figure to encourage people in Brazoria County to recycle more.

Schnaiberg and his colleagues don't supply these specifics in their book, though they note that Keep America Beautiful emphasizes recycling over less polluting practices. And they note that the organization lays the responsibility for disposable packages on individuals and municipalities rather than on producers—helping to ensure a system that relies on exhortation and (implicit) blame rather than the dependable economic incentive a deposit system could provide.

Thus one winner of the 2000 Keep America Beautiful National Awards was a club at Saint Isidore School in Columbus, Nebraska. According to the account posted at kab.org, students surveyed more than 1,500 homes and found that "70% do not recycle plastic bags, 40% do not recycle newspapers, 20% do not recycle cans, 65% do not recycle plastics." Not only did the survey itself garner publicity, but the students also "returned to those who answered negatively on the survey and talked to them about their recycling habits. More than 70% [of those] questioned agreed to sign recycling contracts."

Nothing could seem more bland and innocuous—until you realize how it fits industry's overall agenda: the problem is you, your failure of willpower and your lack of civic spirit. And the solution is not to design a better system with real incentives, but for you to sign a "contract" pledging yourself to ever-greater Stakhanovite efforts to sort garbage. As Schnaiberg, Weinberg, and Pellow write, the industries funding Keep America Beautiful "were well aware of the expenses involved in the collection and sorting of recyclables, and by promoting consumer-municipality obligations, they could evade the high costs of such processing."

Keep America Beautiful has won this battle of ideas on industry's behalf. Almost everyone has come to take it for granted that recycling should be the job of conscientious volunteers and local governments. Goaded by "Captain Waste" and earnest students, they now gather up the scattered paper and plastic and glass and cans, sort them out, and then sell them at rock-bottom prices to remanufacturers. (In cities such as Chicago, large corporations play a bigger role in the process, but the system is the same.) Those who might be inclined to question the proliferation of disposables are diverted into whipping up enthusiasm for blue bags or volunteer cleanup campaigns—which would of course be largely unnecessary if we had a deposit system instead.

Because the volunteers felt guilty about using disposables, and because local governments were already in the garbage business, this kind of recycling wasn't a hard sell. But why should volunteers and local governments assume the burdens imposed by disposable packaging?

It's not at all obvious when you think about it. And it's Keep America Beautiful's job to make it easy for you not to think about it. Schnaiberg says he didn't think about it much himself until the early 1990s, when he spent 15 minutes stuck in traffic behind an Evanston garbage truck bearing the name of Keep Evanston Beautiful, Inc. With little else to do as he waited for it to move, he began to ask himself whether this public-private partnership was really in the public interest. "Even a sociologist can recognize something important under those conditions," he says.

Environmentalists had long ago lost the bottle-bill fight when Schnaiberg got stuck behind that truck. By then the playing field had shrunk to industry specifications. Every one of the Chicago-area recycling programs he and his colleagues investigated—blue bags, curbside pickup, buy-back centers, recycling industrial parks—had to work within the narrow confines established by the defeat of the bottle bills and the near obliteration of the deposit idea behind them. Exhortations to recycle now also fed corporate recycling efforts.

Yet even within these limits Schnaiberg, Weinberg, and Pellow found better and worse ways of recycling. They liked Ken Dunn's Resource Center and its north-side offspring, Uptown Recycling, which offered relatively small-scale buy-back recycling programs. On a typical afternoon at the Resource Center's two-acre south-side outdoor recycling yard, the authors observed, "Most of the traffic is African American men and families bringing in goods in shopping carts or in plastic garbage bags thrown over their backs. A white guy drives in with a Chevy station wagon and goes over to unload them at the barge. Juan (a Guatemalan worker in charge of weighing materials) takes a copy of today's paper off the pile and offers it to me. I notice that they are neatly stacked and figure this guy must be a delivery person or has extras from the Chicago Tribune's offices. A Chevy with two African Americans drives in and they empty cans from it. Four other African American men are coming in here with cans and various other materials."

When Chicago was deciding waste-management policy in the late 1980s, city officials felt sure no such operation could expand to handle all of the city's residential recycling needs. So groups like the Resource Center were almost entirely shut out when the city drew up its plan in 1990, and environmentalists who'd seen the playing field shrink discovered that the game was rigged as well.

To make sure that only big garbage companies could provide residential recycling in Chicago, the city required would-be contractors to lay out up to $8 million apiece to build four material recycling and recovery facilities (MRRFs, pronounced "murphs"). Waste Management won the contract. Under the plan, the city would use its garbage trucks to pick up the now-famous blue bags of recyclables and bags of ordinary garbage at the same time. Once hauled to a MRRF, everything would be dumped onto conveyor belts, and workers would sort recyclables from the rest.

Environmentalists still find it quite incredible that such a convoluted system—which requires sorting all garbage and which allows recyclables to be contaminated by other waste—could be more efficient than a curbside recycling system. Schnaiberg agrees that the blue bag is inefficient, but he adds that both approaches start out desperately handicapped—because recycling has been defined as a process in which volunteers and city workers gather up and sort litter for sale to remanufacturers. With that definition fixed in everyone's mind, it becomes much more difficult to achieve all three Es at once. Instead they must be traded off against one another.

The blue-bag system focuses on economics—how to manage waste most cheaply, at least in the short run. The Resource Center places a higher value on the equity E—how to manage waste most humanely. Urban Recycling tells how Ken Dunn allowed a conveyor belt to rust away after Resource Center workers asked to go back to the slower method of sorting piles of recyclables by hand. They felt their jobs were more manageable when the conveyor belt didn't dictate how fast they worked. Sorting into piles is "much more labor," Dunn told the authors, "but I don't know how much more expensive because there is no machine maintenance, no electricity." Evidently it wasn't important to him to find out. At Urban Recycling, now closed, the accounting was even more casual. One employee calculated that the agency paid a worker $500 to fill a truck with $50 worth of paper.

Small wonder that city officials called the buy-back centers "boutiques" and cringed at the prospect of putting Chicago's recycling in their hands. But the city's preferred approach turned out to be no better economically. In a Pentagon-style overrun, the four MRRFs doubled in cost to $16 million apiece. The authors quote Ann Irving, then executive director of the Chicago Recycling Coalition: "Halfway through the negotiations on the contract, the city announced that they felt they would save money in the long run if they paid for the capital construction of the facilities instead of asking the contractors to bear the costs." No apologies were issued to those who'd been prevented from bidding by that requirement in the first place.

Once the blue-bag program began, MRRF employees—most of them African-American—worked under quasi-military discipline in unheated and unventilated buildings. They sorted garbage on an assembly line, sometimes without proper gloves, exposed to hazards ranging from contaminated needles to corpses. "As one worker explained, he came into close contact with 'anything and everything that people just normally throw out in their garbage'—bleach, battery acid, paint and paint thinner, inks, dyes, razor blades, and homemade explosives."

Labor-law loopholes allowed the city and Waste Management to have no responsibility for the working conditions. "Waste Management used a temporary job service, Remedial Environmental Management (REM), which operated much like a day labor exchange," write Schnaiberg et al. "Workers at the Waste Management MRRFs were not formally employees of Waste Management or REM. Because of the recent changes in labor laws, they were initially classified instead as 'consumers' of REM's service. They had no legal rights as workers and no legal relationship to Waste Management. REM was able to pay the workers very low wages and treat them poorly without technically violating labor laws."

Perhaps fortunately for the workers, poor management produced poor environmental results. In 1997 no more than 5 percent of the city's waste was being recycled, far below the 25 percent mandated by the state and required by the city's contract with Waste Management. In a move that surprised observers who'd smelled favoritism in the contracting process, Mayor Daley enforced the contract and imposed penalties on the firm. Today the MRRFs are under new management. According to the book, working conditions, pay, and recycling percentages have improved. Says Schnaiberg, "I came out of this with a much better opinion of Daley than I'd had before."

The authors of Urban Recycling prefer Ken Dunn's kind of recycling to the MRRFs, but the three-Es balance sheet doesn't seem to strongly favor either approach.

9Environment: both grassroots and corporate systems of recycling do save some trees and prevent some landfills but, Schnaiberg claims, not many. "While large volumes of materials are diverted from landfills and incinerators, it is a small percentage of the total urban waste stream. This diversion is well below what most advocates anticipated and built into their expectations."

9Economy: neither recycling approach is a moneymaker, which is hardly surprising given that the current form of recycling exists to shift costs from the producer corporations and consumers onto taxpayers, volunteers, and MRRF workers. Schnaiberg says that Waste Management is still losing money on its deal with the city, just not as much as at first. "Nobody is making money on recycling itself," says Shellie Riedle of the city's Office of Recycling.

9Equity: jobs at MRRFs pay a little more than those at the Resource Center, but MRRF workers have less control over their work, even under the new management. (For its six years of existence, the Evanston Recycling Center's partnership with the Workforce Development Council did much better at training workers and preparing them for more desirable future jobs.)

The city now claims to be recycling 28 percent of its residential waste; the Chicago Recycling Coalition insists it's really more like 8 percent. Whatever the correct figure, we're profoundly ignorant of the true value of the effort. "Nobody has ever done an ecological analysis—a materials balance—to tell us how environmentally efficient recycling is," Schnaiberg says. If you count the transportation, the energy used, the smells and worse emanating from the MRRFs, the pollution emitted in remanufacturing, does recycling have a net environmental benefit compared to alternative ways of dealing with waste? It seems as if nobody wants to know. "Environmental movement activists felt that their task was completed when they diverted wastes from incinerators and landfills and turned them over to 'someone' who had some use for them."

Schnaiberg remains a stern critic of environmentalists who focus exclusively on an environmental agenda. But he's been sobered to learn how difficult it is for recycling programs to improve the environment, make money, and create desirable jobs all at the same time. He's even more sobered by another thought: because conventional recycling, as opposed to reuse and deposit systems, saves industry money and provides cheap feedstocks, it has actually channeled environmental concern into accelerating industrial production.

That's a cruel paradox, because in Schnaiberg's view, ever-increasing industrial production is more likely to destroy nature than to save it with eco-friendly innovation. And the numbers on recycling support his point. According to the 2000 Statistical Abstract of the United States, the U.S. has gone from recycling just 7 percent of municipal solid waste in 1970 to recycling 28 percent in 1998. But at the same time, the total tonnage going to incinerators and landfills has continued to increase, from 113 million tons in 1970 to 158 million tons in 1998. Recycling has grown, but each year's pile of unrecycled garbage is bigger than the pile from the year before.

How difficult is it to get people to see recycling as a possible wrong turn instead of a panacea? "I do blue bags myself," Schnaiberg acknowledges. "My wife says, 'Given what you know about the program, why do you?' I don't know. I just don't know."

Urban Recycling and the Search for Sustainable Community Development by Adam Weinberg, David Pellow, and Allan Schnaiberg, Princeton University Press $35.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Mark S. Fisher.

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