Americans generate some two hundred and fifty million tons of waste every year. Our options are to bury, burn or recycle it. Over half of it is buried in landfills, often after being transported across states lines. This is in part why garbage is a seventy billion dollar industry. Recycling is about a third of that business. It’s been praised as a huge environmental success, in the U.S. more people recycle than vote. But it has also recently come under criticism for economic reasons and for environmental issues over e-waste, among other things. Diane and her panel of experts discuss finding better ways to manage our garbage.


  • Bruce Parker President & CEO of National Solid Wastes Management Association, a trade association representing for-profit waste and recycling companies in North America.
  • Samantha MacBride Adjunct Assistant Professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, author of "Recycling Reconsidered: the Present Failure and Future Promise of Environmental Action in the United States."
  • Allen Hershkowitz Senior scientist, Natural Resources Defense Council

Program Highlights

Americans generate lots of garbage, almost four and a half pounds per person, per day. Over half goes to the nation’s 2400 landfills, some is incinerated, and roughly one-third is recycled. Diane and guests talked about how we handle trash today.

Recycling “Woefully Underdeveloped In The U.S.”

“Recycling is woefully underdeveloped in the United States. For municipal waste we recycle about a third of our garbage…I’ve written books on garbage management in Japan and Europe and I’ve been there studying it. They recycle twice as much – at least twice as much of the waste than we do,” Hershkowitz said. These areas have better policies and limit the amount of trash that can go in to landfills, he said, unlike here in the U.S.

The Influence Of Federal Policies

Federal policies have allowed states to send trash across their own lines and into other states, Parker said. “Up until 1976, there were thousands of these small open dumps throughout the United States. We’ve all seen them growing up. They had no sanitary protection, no environmental protection, it was during the time when people burned leaves for example out in the streets, which you can’t do anymore,” he said. “When you’re living in a really dense area like the northeast and the central part of the United States where they don’t have a lot of land density, or politically they can’t put up a waste energy plant, they have to send it someplace, and therefore, they’re sending it to different countries,” he said.

Curbside Collection Problems

McBride emphasized that the value of glass is destroyed when it is included in co-mingled curbside collections. “It is going to be going to very low end uses as aggregate or road base. And there’s absolutely no reason why glass could not be treated differently, either separately collected or better yet routed back for refill using a strong deposit system such as they have in Europe,” she said.

The U.S. Is Doing “Many Good Things”

Despite all the problems with recycling and waste management, Parker pointed out that he believes the U.S. is doing many good things in the area. The issue of electronics waste is a particularly contentious one. “This is a complex question and there certainly are documented abuses in e-waste handling in developing countries, but I would also like to point out that there are e-waste recyclers in the U.S. who are working with reputable recyclers and refurbishers in countries like Ghana and also South America and trying to route exported e-waste to responsible processing, often not involving recycling, but refurbishment so that these items can be actually reused in the country of import,” MacBride said.

You can read the full transcript here.


  • 11:06:56

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Americans generate lots of garbage, almost four-and-a-half pounds per person per day. Over a half goes to the nation's 2400 landfills, some is incinerated, roughly a third is recycled. Joining us to talk about how we handle trash, here in the studio, Allen Hershkowitz. He's with the Natural Resources Defense Council. And Bruce Parker of National Solid Waste Management Association. Joining from NPR's New York bureau, Samantha MacBride of Columbia University, author of Recycling Reconsidered.

  • 11:07:48

    MS. DIANE REHMI hope you'll consider joining us this morning, 800-433-8850, send your email to, join us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Good morning to all of you.

  • 11:08:07

    MR. ALLEN HERSHKOWITZGood morning.

  • 11:08:08

    MR. BRUCE PARKERGood morning, Diane.

  • 11:08:08

    REHMGood to have you here.

  • 11:08:10

    PARKERThank you.

  • 11:08:10

    REHMAllen Hershkowitz, how well or how not very well do we manage trash?

  • 11:08:19

    HERSHKOWITZWhen we speak about managing trash, well, we're basically talking about recycling it as much as possible, and minimizing its production to begin with. When we talk about trash, most people think about their municipal waste, but the fact is that we have 14 or 15 billion tons of all types of waste, oil and gas industry waste, mining waste, agricultural waste, food processing residues. But let's talk about municipal waste, and most of that material, industrial wastes are handled in surface impoundments or landfills or are combusted.

  • 11:08:55

    HERSHKOWITZRecycling is woefully underdeveloped in the United States. For municipal waste we recycle about a third of our garbage which compares unfavorably with the OECD. I've written books on garbage management in Japan and Europe and I've been there studying it. They recycle twice as much -- at least twice as much of the waste than we do.

  • 11:09:17

    REHMHow do you account for that?

  • 11:09:19

    HERSHKOWITZWell they have better policies in place. Also, the limit the amount of material that goes to landfill. They have landfill taxes, which we are not able to enact here. Also, they have a policy called producer responsibility which requires the consumer products companies to help pay for the infrastructure to collect the material and send it to a recycling facility. Right now, municipal waste it entire financed by taxpayers or consumers, always the taxpayer, but only sometimes the consumer, and my waste generation cost should relate specifically to what I throw out.

  • 11:09:56

    HERSHKOWITZProducer responsibility rationalizes the price signals, and helps support municipal programs financially and directs more material to recycling.

  • 11:10:08

    REHMAllen Hershkowitz, he's senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Turning to you Bruce Parker, why is it that so many states are sending their trash and garbage across state lines?

  • 11:10:31

    PARKERWell, the reason is because federal policy has directed that. Up until 1976, there were thousands of these small open dumps throughout the United States. We've all seen them growing up. They had no sanitary protection, no environmental protection, it was during the time when people burned leaves for example out in the streets, which you can't do anymore.

  • 11:10:55

    REHMThey smelled so good.

  • 11:10:57

    PARKERThey did smell so good, and it was fun to do with your parents as well.

  • 11:10:59


  • 11:11:01

    PARKERAnyway, United States Environmental Protection Agency passed in 1976 the major law called the Resource, Recovery, and Conservation Act, which basically created an infrastructure and regulations that were promulgated a few years later to close down all these open dumps, and in their place we had like 10, 15,000 today, there was actually less than 2,000 open dumps, but in their place were created larger, better engineered, more scientifically engineered large landfills with leachate collection systems and controls and monitoring systems and gas wells to take out chemicals.

  • 11:11:42

    PARKERAnd these were the large facilities that took garbage from waste sheds. Most of the waste now that travels in interstate commerce, or certainly a large part of it, travels between contiguous states. Washington D.C. for example exports all of its waste. Why? It doesn't have a landfill. Maryland exports almost all of its waste. Why? It doesn't have any facilities. When you're living in a really dense area like the northeast and the central part of the United States where they don't have a lot of land density, or politically they can't put up a waste energy plant, they have to send it someplace, and therefore, they're sending it to different countries.

  • 11:12:18

    PARKERLast, the Supreme Court has held over 25 or -- actually 36 years, that garbage is a commodity with the same protections as an automobile or recyclables traveling through different states.

  • 11:12:31

    REHMBruce Parker, he is president and CEO of National Solid Waste Management Association. That's a trade association representing for-profit waste and recycling companies in North America. And now, turning to you, Samantha MacBride, are landfills regulated sufficiently to keep the toxins from contaminating the environment?

  • 11:13:06

    MS. SAMANTHA MACBRIDEI would say that they are. I'd agree with the previous speaker that the technology now for controlling leachate runoff from landfills, and also to a certain degree in capturing methane and landfill gas for use in electricity production is -- for what it is, it's quite good, and certainly in the near to medium term I think that landfills are relatively safe. Two questions that arise, though, in that area are, first, with methane collection systems, there's a lot of variability in how much methane they are actually capturing from the landfill.

  • 11:13:50

    MS. SAMANTHA MACBRIDESome estimates put it has high as 75 percent, others much, much lower. So there always is going to be some methane that is released from a landfill even with a collection system. The other question about the safety of landfills is more in the much longer term. I mean, we know that liners and other technologies are keeping us relatively safe in the near term, but what about a hundred years from now. Those questions do, I think, deserve some attention.

  • 11:14:23

    REHMHow do you address those questions, Allen?

  • 11:14:26

    HERSHKOWITZWell, the issue of interstate transport is an important one. There are transportation impacts that we need to be concerned about, but the issue is less about how far the waste is traveling than where it winds up. There are waste combusters in New York State taking material from within New York state, not having interstate transport, that are accepting recyclable or indeed noncombustible material. Some materials that don't burn like glass and metals for example, are still being sent to waste combusters, which then it winds up as contaminated ash which then needs to be dumped in a landfill, or the metal gets recovered post combustion in a contaminated form.

  • 11:15:08

    HERSHKOWITZSo it's not so much how far they travel, although I don't want to minimize the transportation impacts, it's where things wind up. We should not be sending any recyclable material to landfills, and in fact, combusters should be reserved for the residue of recycling. Each category of waste has its optimal disposal route. We need to take due regard for economic reality, but basically, metals and glass for example have a BTU value of less than 100 BTUs per pound.

  • 11:15:36

    HERSHKOWITZPlastics, by contrast, has a BTU value of over 12,000 per pound. Well, if you can't recycle plastics, you don't want to put BTUs in a landfill even if it's within your state. You want to send it to an energy recovery facility for energy recovery. The best way to deal with plastics is to recycle them if you can, but we have to get the economics right, and then sends us back to the question of producer responsibility. We need better financial support for the infrastructure to allow municipalities and the private sector to collect higher levels for recycling.

  • 11:16:09


  • 11:16:11

    PARKERYes. I think what you're going to end up with in the discussion is that we are -- and I agree with both speakers, we are moving from linear model of the creation of a consumptive product to its disposal. From extraction of it to processing it to transporting it, to manufacturing it, to using it as the consumer, and then what do we do with it. We're moving from a linear model to a circular model. And the big question is, how long will it take to do that?

  • 11:16:44

    PARKERFor example, Allen says, and I don't disagree with him, that every recyclable, every commodity in the waste, every fraction of it has its best ecological use. The problem is, it doesn't happen overnight, and we don't have the infrastructure at this particular time. Product stewardship may be part of the problem. We have 27 or 28 states right now that actually have product stewardship. Most of it is focusing on toxics taken about a chemical, mercury, lead, so forth and so on. But the bit problem in all of this is that we're on the right track right now, but you have to have infrastructure.

  • 11:17:23

    PARKERThere are some plastics that have very low value, economic value, and economic drives everything -- everything. People aren't going to recycle, they're not going to be doing all this stuff unless there's some economic return to it. If you don't have an infrastructure to take these low valuable commodities out to the waste stream, at the time you take them out, they're only gonna find themselves back in the landfill or exported to a foreign country.

  • 11:17:46

    REHMBut, you know, it's fascinating to me that Japan for example has so much more recyclable material than we do in this country, and even in this country as you say from state to state everything is different. For example, I mean, I've been recycling for 20, 30 years, but it's not as specific recycling as is done for example in Seattle, Washington, which seems to be farther ahead than we are. We're gonna have to take a short break here, but when we come back we'll talk further...

  • 11:18:34

    PARKERIt's a very good question.

  • 11:18:35

    REHM...about all these issues and why there are such differences. Stay with us.

  • 11:20:04

    REHMAnd welcome back. We're talking about Americans and trash. We've got 4.5 pounds per day per person to dispose of. Different states, different countries do it differently. What about Seattle, Allen Hershkowitz?

  • 11:20:29

    HERSHKOWITZWell, you mentioned Japan and Seattle and I'd like to just comment on that. I wrote a book on garbage management in Japan and actually in elementary school in Japan children are given little comic books about recycling, where it is stated that recycling in Japan is a national security issue.

  • 11:20:47

    REHMSo what do they do with recycled material? How are they taught to do it?

  • 11:20:54

    HERSHKOWITZThey view the conservation of resources and the energy benefits associated with that as a national security issue. They prohibit the deposit into landfills of certain types of plastics and paper. Their bottles are standardized size so that they could be refilled. They combine deposit laws with producer responsibility laws with bans on certain material going to landfills.

  • 11:21:18

    HERSHKOWITZAlso I remember leading a congressional tour to Japan to study waste. And as soon as we landed I asked the interpreter, do you sort combustibles from non-combustibles? And she didn't know why we were there to study waste. She just, you know, knew she was hosting us. And she goes, yes of course I...

  • 11:21:33

    REHMOf course.

  • 11:21:34

    HERSHKOWITZ...of course, I sort combustibles from non-combustibles.

  • 11:21:36


  • 11:21:36

    HERSHKOWITZAnd when I mentioned, you know, to our hosts who actually at the time were Kawasaki Industries that, you know, Americans do not, you know, routinely sort combustibles from non-combustibles they looked at me in amazement. So really it's government encouragement and we see that in Seattle. In Seattle we have a very active municipal government. The state government is very supportive. Obviously people are environmentally aware in the Pacific Northwest. You've got a lot of businesses.

  • 11:22:04

    HERSHKOWITZI mean, Seattle Mariners recycle almost 75 percent of all the waste at Safeco Field. If you go to a Seattle Mariners baseball game there is no trashcan in the stadium. There are three recycling bins and a compost bin. That shows the local consciousness about recycling.

  • 11:22:21


  • 11:22:23

    PARKERWell, you hit upon another factor. There's cultural differences between the world, in Japan, even amongst members of the EU and certainly in the United States. The Pacific Northwest, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Oregon, they have a much more entrenched culture of recycling and sustainability. The people are more educated out there to do it. They have more land space. For example, composting, that's where they're doing a tremendous amount of composting. The City of San Francisco has mandatory composting. I think Seattle has mandatory composting out there. It's just a different culture.

  • 11:23:04

    PARKERBut in terms of recycling let's not lose track of the point that in 1980 less than 10 percent of all products were recycled in the United States. In 2010 we're up to 34 percent. That's a pretty good increase.

  • 11:23:24

    REHMWe're making progress.

  • 11:23:26


  • 11:23:26

    REHMSamantha McBride, you're very critical of how we recycle. Talk about why.

  • 11:23:37

    MS. SAMANTHA MCBRIDEWell, I think very critical might be an exaggeration but I do think that some of the problems that actually both of the speakers have been alluding to with regard to recycling plastics and also problems that we have recovering economic value from glass do stem from the way that we collect it. The curbside collection model, which entails putting together paper, metals, glass and plastic is great for the paper and the metal. And for certain small fractions of the plastic they can be separated out and marketed out domestically.

  • 11:24:14

    MS. SAMANTHA MCBRIDEBut the economic value of the glass is pretty much destroyed in a curbside collection scenario. And in order to sort -- color sort out and clean out the glass and ready it for reintroduction to make new bottles as opposed to very low end uses, an enormous amount of money and effort has to be invested. And for that reason I think that the extended producer responsibility framework that Allen Hershkowitz was talking about is very, very apt for both plastic and glass materials. And we have a great precedence set in ten U.S. states bottle bills, which are a very different model of collecting these materials.

  • 11:25:00

    MS. SAMANTHA MCBRIDEIf you imagine, you know, how a bottle bill works you have the consumer returning the container to the point of purchase. It's kept clean, it's kept separate, it maintains its economic value. And research has shown very high rates of -- much higher actually than in curbside recycling scenarios for bottle bills. But bottle bills are opposed by the beverage industry, by the bottling industry. Industry does not want to have even a five-cent levy on their materials.

  • 11:25:34

    MS. SAMANTHA MCBRIDEAnd I really think that if we could promote a national bottle bill and extend it to more plastics and glass containers we could have a quite different scenario of recycling that would be more economically advantageous and ecologically relevant.

  • 11:25:52

    REHMI can certainly remember as a child here in Washington, D.C. taking bottles back to the grocery store. But then -- and having that money in my pocket but then we seemed to have moved much more to plastic, which is more difficult, Allen?

  • 11:26:20

    HERSHKOWITZYeah, Samantha McBride is absolutely correct. Container deposit laws are the most effective mechanism to collect bottles and cans ever devised. And that was determined by the congressional research service as early -- back in the early 1990s. And as Samantha pointed out, there is huge opposition from the beverage industry to container deposit laws. But let me tell you this. We recycle in the United States only about 26 or 27 percent of all our plastic containers, a very low amount. Actually for all plastics we recycle less than 5 percent. Ninety-five percent of all the plastics in our waste stream are not recovered for recycling.

  • 11:26:59

    HERSHKOWITZFor plastic containers like water bottles and soda bottles we're up at around 25, 26 percent. And 70 percent of those bottles come from the ten bottle bill states. So there's no question that container deposit laws are highly effective. The beverage industry views them as inefficient and too costly. They are limited in what they capture. But this points out -- and I think this is something that Bruce alluded to also correctly, we need a mosaic of policies. There is no one action that we can undertake that will solve our waste management problem in the most economical or ecological way. We need a diversity of strategies.

  • 11:27:38

    REHMBruce Parker, how much of what we recycle is actually being thrown out?

  • 11:27:49

    PARKERWell, as I mentioned, we recycled -- in 2010, we recycled 60 million tons out of 250 tons that were generated.

  • 11:28:01


  • 11:28:02

    PARKERAnd the other 20 million tons were composted. But, yes, there's a lot of recyclables that are -- don't go to the best ecological position as Allen mentioned. But the point is right now, you know, there's always competing interests. For example, the big trend today is curbside comingle collection, which has its pluses and its downsize. This is not a simple issue. Curbside comingle collection basically is very easy for the consumer. You don't have to separate out the different fractions of recycling.

  • 11:28:35

    REHMBut they do in Seattle.

  • 11:28:36

    PARKERWell, they do in Seattle but that's not typical -- that's not typical.

  • 11:28:41

    REHMBut why not?

  • 11:28:43

    PARKERBecause, as I mentioned -- well, you know, every state is different. There's political reasons, there is cultural reasons...

  • 11:28:50

    REHMAnd there are money reasons...

  • 11:28:52

    PARKERWell, money...yeah.

  • 11:28:53

    REHM...on the part of the bottling industry and others.

  • 11:28:57

    PARKERWell, that's true but -- and I think both Samantha and Allen would agree with this, you know, we call it the three-legged stool when we come to all of this for sustainability. One is economic, one is environmental and the other is social responsibility. Walmart, Ford, you name every single American corporation, they will not recycle. They will not buy new processes unless it's cost effective and they will make money from it. That's not to say that that's bad. That's their incentive. No one is basically going to do something for free. That's our system.

  • 11:29:36

    REHMThat's too bad. Allen.

  • 11:29:37

    HERSHKOWITZYeah, you know, what...

  • 11:29:39

    PARKERDo you agree with that, Allen?

  • 11:29:39

    HERSHKOWITZI agree. What's frustrating in listening to Bruce's correct observation is that we subsidize pollution. We subsidize the virgin extraction industries and we subsidize the energy industry. And that makes recycling less cost competitive. One of the major benefits of recycling is energy savings. If you recycle aluminum into aluminum you reduce the energy use in doing -- manufacturing aluminum by 95 percent. But if we're subsidizing electricity by subsidizing oil and coal we're making the economic benefit of recycling diminished.

  • 11:30:14

    HERSHKOWITZThe same goes for plastic bottles, which are made from petroleum. The same goes for virgin paper making. We give away wood below market rates on national forest lane and -- you know, and through import centers and this makes recycling paper less cost competitive. It makes recycling metals less cost competitive. It makes plastics recycling less cost competitive. So the marketplace is thoroughly distorted against environmental progress. And unfortunately, as you pointed out, our government is a wholly owned subsidiary of the extraction and polluting industries.

  • 11:30:51

    REHMAll right. Samantha McBride, your book is titled "Recycling Reconsidered: The Present Failure and Future Promise of Environmental Action in the U.S. (sic) " If you could change one thing about the way we process trash,. what would it be?

  • 11:31:20

    MCBRIDEWell, as I described, it would be to get glass out of comingled curbside collections. Glass' value is pretty much destroyed when it goes into the curbside comingled collection. It is going to be going to very low end uses as aggregate or road base. And there's absolutely no reason why glass could not be treated differently, either separately collected or better yet routed back for refill using a strong deposit system such as they have in Europe.

  • 11:31:52

    MCBRIDENow this may seem like kind of a small detail to be focusing on glass, but it gets to why I titled my book the way that I did, the present failure of environmental action. I realize that this is kind of a discouraging title, but it comes from my great respect of the ecology movement as it evolved and emerged in 1970 and started the practice again for ecological reasons of municipal recycling.

  • 11:32:22

    MCBRIDEAt the same time mounting a really pointed critique of the system, as it were, of the corporate alliances, as Allen refers to, with government that were driving an industrial complex that was predicated on more and more production and more and more consumption. And this impulse was articulated both practically in community-based recycling centers where citizens were diligently sorting glass from paper, from metal and trying to figure out how to get it back into production.

  • 11:33:00

    MCBRIDEAnd it was also articulated as a political statement, a critique not just of the consumer society, but also the forces of production that have led to among other things the demise of the refillable glass bottle and the idea that putting glass into curbside collection is ecologically meaningful, but it's not.

  • 11:33:24

    REHMAll right. And Samantha McBride and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're going to open the phones now, 800-433-8850. First to Shaker Heights, Ohio. Good morning, Karen, you're on the air.

  • 11:33:48

    KARENWhat a really informative show. I really have learned so much listening to...

  • 11:33:53

    REHMI'm so glad.

  • 11:33:53

    KAREN...the callers. Shaker Heights has been recycling for years and I think it's pretty darn successful here. We have curbside pickup and we can take -- we can put paper at the curbside or we have these large bins located at our libraries and other parking lots through town where we can take paper. And honest to goodness, it's unbelievable how much paper we accumulate. When you start separating stuff out and once you see the waste, it really is mind boggling and very educational.

  • 11:34:33

    KARENAnd I really wish that our state would go back to that bottle bill. I had no idea that curbside recycling for bottles and cans was so unprofitable. Here's my question. Why the excessive packaging of items that we buy today? Sometimes you'll come home from Costco and you need, you know, a box cutter and pliers to get into a container. Why can't we...

  • 11:35:03

    REHMYou're absolutely right. Bruce.

  • 11:35:08

    PARKERThat drives me crazy for the same reason. It's just total waste of energy. And when you do that basically you're increasing greenhouse gas emissions throughout the whole process, pollution. You're using precious metals that don't have to be used packaging. That said, the trend right now is to light weighting, for example, less packaging. The amount of paper packaging has decreased tremendously right now.

  • 11:35:36

    PARKERAnd a perfect example of different aspects of that is Walmart, for instance, won't stock anything but the condensed cleaners to do your laundry detergent because they want to get more on the shelf. And they can get more in the truck and they eliminate the greenhouse gas emissions from transportation and so forth.

  • 11:35:55

    PARKERAlso the aluminum industry is basically creating right now 60 percent more cans from the same amount of aluminum that they did 35 years ago.

  • 11:36:06

    REHMInteresting. Allen.

  • 11:36:08

    HERSHKOWITZWe have excess packaging because the consumer products companies are not penalized at all for over-packaging their products. In Europe, in Germany, in Sweden, in the Netherlands you see a reduction in packaging waste and packaging of products because they have required the consumer products companies to pay for its disposal. Right now Procter and Gamble could market a diamond ring in a refrigerator box and bear no financial penalty for it. Toys are routinely over-packaged. Hardware items are over-packaged because the consumer product companies don't have to pay for it. Producer responsibility will correct that. And...

  • 11:36:49

    REHMHow do you get that through congress?

  • 11:36:54

    HERSHKOWITZWell, you don't get it through Congress. I'm not sure you could get it through Congress at this point. There's not much you can get through Congress. We're having a hard time getting, you know, some, you know...

  • 11:37:04

    PARKER...out budget approved.

  • 11:37:04

    HERSHKOWITZ...really basic -- you know, the...

  • 11:37:06

    REHMYeah, but let's...

  • 11:37:07

    HERSHKOWITZ...but through state governments...

  • 11:37:08

    REHMOkay, state governments, you're saying.

  • 11:37:08

    HERSHKOWITZ...state governments. I mean, okay. So look, there's battles going on right now in Vermont, in Minnesota, in Rhode Island and California. I'm involved in them and my organization NRDC is involved in them. What we need is legislatures and municipal government officials see the financial benefits of having consumer product companies help pay for the infrastructure. We need to take on the big industries who are sending the lobbyists to the state houses to stop that law.

  • 11:37:34

    REHMAllen Hershkowitz, senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Short break and right back.

  • 11:40:01

    REHMAnd lots of you have been emailing and sending us messages, rather a lot dealing with multiple layers of plastic and cardboard in packaging, but I want to turn the question of e-waste and how it's contaminating other countries. Explain this, Allen.

  • 11:40:29

    HERSHKOWITZElectronic waste is the fastest growing component of our municipal waste stream. We throw out, in this country, about 230,000 computers every day.

  • 11:40:36


  • 11:40:36

    HERSHKOWITZAnd these computers and electronics contain heavy metals. They contain mercury and cadmium.

  • 11:40:41

    REHMAre you saying we just throw them in the trash?

  • 11:40:43

    HERSHKOWITZCorrect, correct, correct. And a lot of these materials, under the guise of recycling are being sent to the developing world, Ghana, Nigeria, China, areas that really handle these materials under medieval conditions, 21st century toxics.

  • 11:40:58

    REHMWhat do they do with them?

  • 11:40:59

    HERSHKOWITZWell, they basically have unprotected workers, women and children, I've seen it myself, openly burn these materials, dip them in acids trying to recover the valuable metals or the recoverable plastics. There is a certification program called e-Stewards. It was adopted to protect the developing countries. Basically, it's a certification program, a market-based certification program. If you use e-Steward certified e-waste recyclers, e-Steward's certified e-waste recyclers will assure that your e-waste will be disassembled in the United States under proper regulatory and environmental conditions.

  • 11:41:40

    HERSHKOWITZThen we can export the component plastics and the component metals abroad for typical markets.

  • 11:41:48

    REHMBruce Parker, you disagree?

  • 11:41:51

    PARKERIt's not that I disagree. It's a matter of degree. Right now there is at least 3.5 million tons of e-waste recycled properly here in the United States. There is not nearly as much of that going overseas as there has been in the past. A lot of that was started -- which I talked about earlier -- California banned e-waste with no infrastructure available to take care of it. It's like banning something.

  • 11:42:15

    PARKERThe fact of the matter is that the answer is exactly as Allen said, there's the basal action network which set up this stewardship. But right now in the United States some of my members, for example, have partnerships with L.G. Electronics, with many of the other -- Apple, with many of the electronics companies where they are collecting it, processing it and then sending it back to these manufacturers. Sort of like a voluntary product stewardship program.

  • 11:42:47

    PARKERThere's a lot of good things going on in the United States. I don't want anybody sort of to present this picture of gloom and doom. The United States is doing many, many good things and people are doing many good things.

  • 11:42:57


  • 11:42:58

    HERSHKOWITZThe vast majority of electronic waste in the United States today is being mishandled. It's either being landfilled or it's being exported to developing countries...

  • 11:43:06

    PARKERNo. I disagree.

  • 11:43:06

    HERSHKOWITZ...that are improperly handling it.

  • 11:43:08

    REHMSamantha, do you wanna weigh in on this?

  • 11:43:11

    MACBRIDEYes. This is a complex question and there certainly are documented abuses in e-waste handling in developing countries, but I would also like to point out that there are e-waste recyclers in the U.S. who are working with reputable recyclers and refurbishers in countries like Ghana and also South America and trying to route exported e-waste to responsible processing, often not involving recycling, but refurbishment so that these items can be actually reused in the country of import.

  • 11:43:49

    MACBRIDEAnd I think in the scheme of everything that we're talking about we need to recognize, as Bruce pointed out, that you do have to have some export markets right now for certain items. And let's try and see if we can't build responsible export markets, rather than damning export completely.

  • 11:44:09

    HERSHKOWITZRight. We're not talking about banning export for warranty repair. And we're certainly not talking about banning the export of the disassembled components of electronic waste. What we're concerned about is the wholesale dumping into containers of e-waste, which then, under the guise of recycling, gets ship to the developing world where it is improperly handled.

  • 11:44:28

    REHMOkay. So I have a printer at home. And every time I order a new ink I ship back my used ink product to the company. What does the company do with it?

  • 11:44:48

    HERSHKOWITZThe company extracts the residual ink to recover it for recycling. And depending on the company, but generally the large consumer electronics companies...

  • 11:44:57


  • 11:44:57

    HERSHKOWITZRight. H.P. is a good one. They will direct that electronic waste to a domestic processor in the United States for disassembly for the first stage in recycling. The plastic components or the metal components then may wind up being exported, but H.P. in particular, is an environmentally responsible electronics company which has been progressive on the e-waste issue. They got ahead of the curve. And they do work with e-Steward certified companies.

  • 11:45:28

    REHMAll right. Let me ask another question. This is from Ruth in Columbia, Mo. She says, "Where we live we can recycle plastics number one and two, but not others. Can you tell me what these numbers mean? Is there a reason other numbers cannot be recycled or alternatively a reason why containers aren't just manufactured as number two?" Allen?

  • 11:46:03

    HERSHKOWITZYeah, well, the numbers relate to the polymers that comprise the plastics. High-density polyethylene is number one, polyethylene turabolate soda bottles is number two, then you've got polyvinylchloride, polypropylene, polystyrene, there are a variety of different plastics. They have different attributes. The different attributes determine whether or not they can be recycled. The different attributes also determine their usefulness in the marketplace.

  • 11:46:26

    HERSHKOWITZSome provide oxygen barriers, some provide coloring, some provide stabilization for the products that they package. Right now, unfortunately, the vast majority of plastics in this country are not recycled and are very difficult to recycle. If we had producer responsibility, if the consumer products companies had to take responsibility for the packaging they put into the marketplace then when they were designing the package, the number three, the number four, the number five, the number six and the number seven plastics, they would be designing it with an awareness that they are going to pay the price financially if they design it without recycling in mind.

  • 11:47:02

    REHMAll right. To Holliston, Mass. Good morning, Catherine.

  • 11:47:09

    CATHERINEHi, good morning. I try and keep it quick. I wrote down my notes. So I just wanted to say I'm 30 and I was raised recycling from when I was a little kid and I've even been for it. So I think what a great idea the Japanese had to create a pamphlet for it for elementary school kids to start young. And I actually spent months in Japan. And I was amazed at how well they had the whole recycling situation in control because it really does come down to money and they would fine you if you didn't.

  • 11:47:41

    CATHERINEThey just -- that's the way it went. So my question really is who's in charge of the corporations responsibilities in a small town such as Holliston where we have a Dunkin' Donuts and I don't see any recycle bin next to the trash. And I wonder how corporations like that who specialize in, you know, things that are disposable -- are there laws? Or how would I make some noise to find out how to make a law so that those companies have to be responsible for...

  • 11:48:10

    REHMAll right. Allen?

  • 11:48:11

    HERSHKOWITZWell, you answered your own question. You have to make noise to get a law going. In Samantha MacBride's excellent book, which I just recently read, she tells the story of the evolution of the recycling movement and focuses on a number of small organizations that became, you know, fairly influential because they were committed to promoting recycling and taking action.

  • 11:48:28

    HERSHKOWITZSo what I would say is, yeah, go to your Dunkin' Donuts, go to your local government, ask them to start recycling programs if none exist. Work with your local haulers. They make money from selling recycled paper, from recycled metals.

  • 11:48:42

    REHMOkay. But, Allen, I wanna go back to something you said during the break. You said you testified before Congress about a bottle law. And what did members of Congress tell you?

  • 11:48:57

    HERSHKOWITZWell, one of the members accused me of wanting to raise the price of food. Basically -- and that particular member was getting tens of thousands of dollars from the grocery manufacturers association. It's no shock to your listeners that it's pay to play in Congress. And this is why when you asked me earlier can we get a law in Congress requiring producer responsibility I said unlikely. Because basically right now the consumer products companies and their trade groups own the majority of members of Congress or the substantially influential members of Congress that control this issue.

  • 11:49:30

    HERSHKOWITZAnd consequently, the public interests, the environmental interests is routinely subverted and undermined. Democracy is being undermined by the way Congress if financed.

  • 11:49:41

    REHMAll right. To Salt Lake City. Good morning, Mark.

  • 11:49:46

    MARKThank you. Your guests just made the point I wish to make. They've already established that we subsidize cheap oil through higher taxes for defense, healthcare costs, pollution and trade imbalance. If we were gonna do one thing to solve this problem it would be campaign finance reform that would stop corporations and individuals from bribing Congress that's writes their own legislative welfare.

  • 11:50:10

    MARKThis means we could then free Congress so that they could actually write legislation that was good for Americans, pay higher taxes that reflects the real costs of oil and gas and agriculture and we could solve these problems by just, you know, letting Congress be bribed by these corporations...

  • 11:50:31

    REHMIt's frustrating, isn't it, Mark? How do you see it, Bruce?

  • 11:50:35

    PARKERIt's complex.

  • 11:50:36


  • 11:50:37

    PARKERIt just points out that there are no easy answers. It's just that simple.

  • 11:50:41

    REHMWell, but there are some easy answers if...

  • 11:50:45

    PARKERLike what?

  • 11:50:47

    REHM...if you had members...

  • 11:50:48

    MACBRIDEI'd like to add something here. I...

  • 11:50:50

    REHM...of local jurisdictions willing to take on the big business.

  • 11:50:59

    PARKERThere are -- municipal officials, many of them, are elected. You don't get elected when you raise taxes or you do subsidize things like that. It's very complicated.

  • 11:51:08

    REHMWell, it's also...

  • 11:51:10

    PARKERYou have educational problems with the consumers, for example. It just goes on and one. This is not a simple issue. And as soon as people really understand that they will ratchet down their expectations a little bit. I agree with every single thing that Allen said. And I agree with everything that Samantha said. The issue is this is not gonna happen overnight. Washington, D.C...

  • 11:51:30

    REHMOf course not.

  • 11:51:32

    PARKERWashington, D.C., Bethesda, Md., where I live you can smell the politics in the air. For every potentially good thing that they wanna do there are political costs, there are economic costs, there are changes, there are policy considerations. It is not easy.

  • 11:51:47

    REHMSamantha, beyond glass, what about batteries? Batteries run everything. What do you do with them?

  • 11:51:59

    MACBRIDEWell, batteries should be treated in a similar framework to how we're treating e-waste through strong laws and framework that enable consumers to conveniently return them to the manufacturer. But I'd like to say something to some of the earlier points about, you know, what can we do at the level of campaign finance and at the level of the local concerned citizen.

  • 11:52:25

    MACBRIDEAnd one thing that I advocate in my book is much more transparent data and information about wastes in all of their complexity. We have rather good data about municipal solid waste that's put out every year by the EPA, but we don't have good data about industrial waste. And the -- actually the last EPA reporting on the subject was way back in the late 1980s. At that time the EPA estimated that industrial wastes from manufacturing, production in the U.S. figured at between 7.2 billion and 7.8 billion tons a year.

  • 11:53:05

    MACBRIDEAnd that's compared to about 250 million tons of what we consider regular trash or garbage around us. Now, we don't know whether those numbers reflect what's going on today. And there are a lot of, you know, complicated caveats to interpreting them, but industry has consistently fought efforts by community organizations, environmental organizations and even legislators to do a transparent national data gathering and dissemination on the subject of industrial waste.

  • 11:53:41

    MACBRIDEAnd I think that doing that and publicizing it in a user-friendly format somewhat akin to the Toxics Release Inventory, which is a user-friendly national data reporting system for toxic pollution that comes from industry -- might start to clarify some of these relationship between consumer and producer that we're also trying to get at with producer responsibility legislation.

  • 11:54:09

    REHMSamantha MacBride. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show". Let's go to Grand Rapids, Mich. Good morning, Mary.

  • 11:54:24

    MARYGood morning, Diane. I'm very excited to be able to tell you about the new facility we have in Grand Rapids.

  • 11:54:33

    REHMOh, dear. I'm sorry, Mary. You're...

  • 11:54:36

    MARYAm I getting through?

  • 11:54:36

    REHMYeah, your phone is breaking up. I think we'll have to go instead to Big Rock, Ill. Good morning, Mike.

  • 11:54:49

    MIKEYeah, and I'd like to say three cheers for the Japanese and the people in Seattle. And to say that we can't apply these things rapidly to the rest of the nation is to demean the rest of us out here. I'm taking -- take this on more seriously each day of my life. In a sort of religion of anti-consumerism where things are thrown away that have more value than the product that was in them. With the debris field approaching our west coast I'd say we all need, you know, to get on board and find ways to handle this material.

  • 11:55:29

    MIKEThe McDonald's, Burger King, they should be at the forefront of this effort.

  • 11:55:34

    REHMWhere are they?

  • 11:55:35

    HERSHKOWITZYeah, well, you know, that's -- in thinking about the debris field in the Pacific Ocean, we have treated our ocean as a sewer. According to the United Nations there's 46,000 pieces of plastic per square mile in the ocean. And that is land-based in origination. Most of the debris in the ocean originates on land. And this underscores the woefully inadequate infrastructure we have, not only in the developed world, but especially in the developing world.

  • 11:56:03

    HERSHKOWITZThat's important to remember. As you and other people and myself have traveled around the world, you go -- the number one transport vehicle for invasive species on the planet is the soda bottle. It used to be ship barges that deposited their water. Now it's their soda bottle. When you go to the beaches in the developing world or middle-income countries, you see plastic soda bottles everywhere.

  • 11:56:25

    HERSHKOWITZThe infrastructure for plastic collection globally, plastic is the most ubiquitous form of litter on the planet. I've been up in the Arctic refuge, I've been in northeastern China, I've been in the middle of South America, I've just been a national park last week and I see a plastic bottle on a cactus.

  • 11:56:40

    REHMGot to do something. Allen Herschkowitz of Natural Resources Defense Council; Bruce Parker, president and CEO of National Solid Wastes Management Association and Samantha MacBride, author of "Recycling Reconsidered," thank you all. Thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.

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