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Part II - What's Going On?


In the 1980s, concern about running out of landfill space drove the development of community recycling systems. Now many voices are claiming there is no landfill crisis and accuse recycling of being an expensive alternative that municipalities cannot afford. But these arguments rely on only selective parts of the picture. When the landfill issue is analyzed comprehensively, the environmental - and even economic - points are still crucial and valid:

  • Even state-of-the-art landfills cannot prevent groundwater contamination and pollution problems forever. At best, they only postpone it to haunt later generations.

  • The mix created within a landfill has many hazardous components. Indeed, nearly a quarter of the sites slated for priority clean-up on the Superfund National Priority List are municipal solid waste landfills.

  • Some of the most egregious landfills, including Staten Island's "Fresh Kills" Landfill - the largest human-made object on Earth - are close to closing and there are no locations nearby for replacement. While some states are welcoming the income generated by other communities' garbage being shipped in to their landfills, many are closing their borders to "foreign" trash. New landfills continue to be hard to site.

  • Incinerators waste energy compared to recycling. They also waste resources, pollute the air, and concentrate toxics which then must be landfilled.

  • Landfills and incinerators are usually heavily subsidized by tax dollars. Recycling, in contrast, has been expected to pay its own way.

  • The cost necessary for safe and proper long-term maintenance has not been budgeted or allocated to many of the landfills that are closing. The cost will be far greater than communities have assumed.

  • When costs are fairly compared between the solid waste management methods, a well-run recycling program comes out to be cost-competitive. In fact, when hidden factors are considered, such as avoided costs and the subsidies given to landfilling and burning, recycling often turns out to be the least expensive option.


But the greatest reason why landfills and incinerators are a problem is that they trash resources.

Printing and writing paper dumped into a landfill could have been recycled up to a dozen more times, saving trees, water and energy and reducing pollution each time. Incinerators are even more wasteful than landfills, even though many are touted as energy-producers. They generally require a dedicated trash source, such as the lion's share of a municipality's garbage, for prime operation, discouraging source reduction and recycling. Yet in many cases, particularly paper, incinerators use more energy to burn the materials than they give back.

In 1994, the U.S. generated 209 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSW), up from 196 million tons in 1990 (and 88 million tons in 1960).

The good news is that the percentage of materials recovered through recycling and composting increased to 24% (49 million tons), from 17% in 1990. The bad news is that, despite improved recycling rates, the actual tonnage disposed in landfills is still increasing because of increased consumption rates. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) expects annual MSW generation to increase to 223 million tons in 2000 and 262 million tons in 2010. Of the total amount of materials recovered from MSW, the paper industry led by recycling more than half, nearly 29 million tons. Nearly 40% of MSW (81.3 million tons) is paper and paperboard. Seven percent (14.6 million tons) is wood.

Conserving primary resources such as trees is not the only resource opportunity lost to landfills and incinerators. Recycling materials rather than trashing them saves water and energy in the production system, as well as reduces air, water, and land pollution. According to EPA, preliminary research even indicates that source reduction and recycling of MSW also have significant potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate climate change.


This is why, in June 1996, EPA announced that, having met its national goal of 25% recycling of municipal solid waste, it is considering a new national recycling goal of 35% by the year 2005. However, even EPA acknowledges that this will only slightly decrease, by about 4 million tons, the amount of material that is landfilled and incinerated annually, because of the continually-increasing amount of materials discarded.

Many recycling experts, including the National Recycling Coalition, the California Resource Recovery Association, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (which has done groundbreaking work on recycling and economics), and Worldwatch Institute, call instead for a 50% recycling rate. This rate is realistic and achievable, they maintain, when taking into account the reductions in material possible through source reduction, composting of food scraps and yard trimmings, recycling of construction and demolition debris, and continually increasing recycling rates for many materials.

When the focus more appropriately shifts to sounder management of resources, recycling and source reduction (preventing waste from even being produced) are obviously critical. This more environmentally accurate focus makes tree-free pulps and chlorine-free paper obvious choices, as well, in refining and recreating industrial production systems that are environmentally sustainable over future generations. They are all part of rethinking how to better conserve resources and prevent or reduce pollution.


There are four main categories of paper: high grade printing and writing paper, newsprint, corrugated/paperboard (including packaging) and tissue/towel products. The largest category (by production) is corrugated/paperboard, which amounts to about half of all paper produced. The next largest category is printing and writing paper, which amounts to nearly 30% of total paper production. The balance is split between tissue (7%), newsprint (8%) and packaging papers (5%).

The overall recycled content in each category varies, with tissue and towel currently containing the highest percentage of recycled material (well over 50%), and printing and writing paper the lowest (about 10%, little of it postconsumer). This is particularly significant because the vast majority of printing and writing paper is discarded within six months to a year after production.

The American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA) reports that nearly 12 million tons of printing and writing paper were recovered in 1995, out of nearly 29 million tons consumed, for a recovery rate of 41%. However, the recovered high grade paper is used for many other recycled grades, including tissue and paperboard, and nearly 20% is exported. After accounting for paper that was probably saved (e.g., filed or not yet used), this means that approximately 14 million tons of fine papers were left in landfills, nearly 9% of the materials in landfills and almost a third of the paper and paper products landfilled.

Printing and writing paper can be turned into virtually any grade of paper, but it can accept very little fiber from other paper categories into its own production. Therefore, it is most resource-efficient to use high grade scrap paper in printing and writing paper, where the fibers can be reused many times. (In contrast, if printing and writing scrap is turned into tissue and towel, it will not be recycled a second time. If it is turned into other grades of paper, such as newsprint or corrugated, it cannot be remade back into printing and writing paper. Newsprint and corrugated fibers have far fewer "lives" than fibers made into printing and writing paper.)

Increasing recycled content in printing and writing papers is particularly important, since it leaves the most room for improvement. The U.S. paper disposal rate has not gone down appreciably despite increased recovery rates. Instead, the increased recycling is just barely keeping up with the increase in demand (and therefore increase in amount disposed) for more and more paper.

When recovered paper is collected for recycling, it is baled with similar kinds of paper and then shipped to a paper mill that can deink it or otherwise recycle it. Nearly a quarter of the recovered paper in the U.S. is shipped to Mexico, Canada, Asia and Europe rather than used in domestic mills. In 1994-1995, prices for recovered paper were high because of export demand, hoarding by mills worried about ever-escalating prices, and the introduction of several new high grade deinking mills. While this caused havoc for paper mills and their customers (all paper prices were high, but recycled prices were even higher), it was welcome news to municipal collection systems, many of which turned their recycling systems into cash cows, at least for the short-term.


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