SOCRRA is an organization of 12 neighboring municipalities in southeastern Michigan. The organization is devoted to waste management and it was its Material Recovery Facility (recycling center) that was recently toured by the IoPP (Institute of Packaging Professionals) Michigan Chapter. The Chapter’s interest in recycling hardly needs explaining, in that recyclability is an oft-cited claim associated with sustainable packaging.
The tour began with a classroom session wherein the instructor explained how the facility operates: materials collected curbside from member municipalities are received in trucks; the trucks are weighed for calculation of their haul (a per-ton rebate goes to the sending municipality); the trucks dump their hauls inside the facility; materials are sorted and baled; and, lastly, the materials are shipped to customers that convert the materials for other uses. It was further explained that the packaging-related materials accepted by the facility include paper, glass, metal, and plastics, although the last-named did not include expanded polystyrene foam.
Proceedings continued to the outdoors where attendees witnessed some truck arrivals and weighing. We later walked to the nearby alignment of giant, labeled bins, which receive materials (including the hazardous variety) dropped off by individual citizens.
Next, attendees were escorted into the heart of the facility, the building wherein the main operations take place. The interior resembles a nightmarish case of hoarding, various piles of solid-wastes, each more than a story high; nonetheless, there was some homogeneity to the piles, in that each consisted mostly of a particular material. Material handling equipment would scoop into the piles and dump the materials onto conveyors. There is some manual sorting in addition to mechanical sorting. And so it was that attendees went on to see the subsequent operations, ending with the loading of baled material onto delivery trucks. Shortly thereafter, we headed back outside, said our goodbyes, and were on our way.
The classroom had a display rack loaded with brochures and leaflets, and despite what might be inferred from their unconditional praise of recycling, such opinions are not shared by all stakeholders. True of every component of sustainability, there are pros and cons to recycling; unfortunately, the triggered debate isn’t always as enlightening as it could be. It’s no stretch to say that all reasonably-minded stakeholders embrace sustainability--at least, in concept. Contention stems over how best to achieve sustainability through the management of its components.
A case-in-point is SOCRRA, itself. What should be the limits of a municipality’s authority to implement recycling programs (which, to some extent or another, involve tax-payer’s dollars)? And given that a program’s economic feasibility is tied to the degree of participation by citizens, another question becomes, what should be the limits of a municipality’s authority to impose penalties on the non-participants (assuming voluntary compliance falls far short of needs)?
Moving the discussion to justifications for recycling, a major one is that it conserves energy and resources by reducing the consumption of virgin raw materials. The justification has logical appeal; nonetheless, there are associated considerations. One is that, as analytical tools such as Life-Cycle Assessment teach, energy and resource conservation should be determined on a net basis (albeit such a determination is fraught with subjectivity). Another is that not all virgin raw materials should be regarded in the same light; for example, that some virgin raw materials are derived from renewable resources and others are not is an important differentiator.
Then there’s the justification that recycling diverts materials from landfills, which, on its surface, is undeniable; but here, too, the challenge is to delve below the surface. Implied is that there’s either a present or soon-to-be scarcity of land for use as landfills. Data doesn’t support that regarding the United States, although they likely do support it for countries that are smaller. Some detractors don’t rely on the land-availability argument, choosing instead to argue that there is something primitive——if not inherently objectionable——about a society’s burying its solid-wastes. The aforementioned perspective does not seem to acknowledge the technological strides that have been made in the management of landfills, not only in making them less likely to leach elements into ground water but also in making them easier to eventually reclaim. More fundamentally, given that not every material (for example, paper) can be repeatedly recycled without a concomitant reduction in its functional properties, such materials eventually become candidates for landfills.
Yet another justification for recycling is that it makes for new product offerings (for example, plastic lumber); even so, such upcycling is the exception, with the rule being either conversion into the same product (think plastic bottles, glass bottles, aluminum cans) or conversion into products of lesser added value (downcycling). A discussion of products neatly dovetails into a discussion of consumption, thereby introducing another controversy: whether recycling encourages consumption over conservation. Should the amount of concern over a society’s consumption be proportional to that society’s ability to recycle or otherwise dispose of its solid-wastes?
The tour was reminiscent of a school fieldtrip, and indeed, SOCRRA does have an outreach program for schools. That’s to be applauded, for in its essence, sustainability, in general, and recycling, in specific, are about the future, and, who has more of a stake in the future than the young? Educationally, what the young are owed is that what’s handed down to them represents the best in objective, fair-minded, and balanced information. That’s easy to say, difficult to do, given the entrenched, vested interests than can impair impartiality. But one educational tidbit that meets the aforementioned criteria is this: packaging is not an enemy to the environment but rather a friend. Yes, it contributes to solid-wastes; however, without it, far more solid-wastes would be generated throughout supply-chains. Those, along with other such truths, should be instilled into the minds of future generations; otherwise, it will be fallacies that are being recycled.
Sterling Anthony is a consultant, specializing in the strategic use of marketing, logistics, and packaging. His contact information is: 100 Renaissance Center- P.O. Box 43176; Detroit, MI 48243; 313-531-1875 office; 313-531-1972 fax; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.pkgconsultant.com