Federal Policy Recommendations

From Waste to Resource Recovery Infrastructure

A 21st Century Program for Greenhouse Gas Reduction and Sustainable Jobs

America’s waste removal infrastructure is outdated because it incentivizes throwing away valuable resources. The Obama Administration has a unique opportunity to capture billions of dollars of resources thrown into landfills and incinerators every day. This will simultaneously create good sustainable jobs, curb landfill emissions of methane – a greenhouse gas 25 more powerful than CO2 – efficiently and effectively conserve energy, and stimulate local economies and U.S.-based markets for recycled goods.  Building such a 21st century resource recovery infrastructure will require setting a national recycling rate goal of 75 percent by 2015, providing effective incentives and federal oversight, and initial investments that will generate quick returns and long term benefits.

Recycling programs can quickly create jobs.

Increasing the national recycling rate is a direct and economical way to quickly create significant numbers of green, quality, living wage jobs in disadvantaged communities, since currently only one third of municipal solid waste is recycled.  Recycling industries include activities such as curbside collection of materials, deconstruction of buildings and products, processing of recycled materials, composting, repair and reuse businesses, and manufacturing of new products using recycled content.  These industries already provide more than 1.1 million jobs in the U.S., which is comparable in size to the U.S. auto manufacturing and machinery manufacturing industries.[1] Recycling industries generate an annual payroll of nearly $37 billion and gross over $236 billion in annual revenue.  In addition, recycling industries provide far more jobs than waste incinerators and landfills. The job skills necessary for this industry range from entry level to high skilled labor. These industries can put Americans to work immediately and provide pathways to prosperity through career ladder opportunities.

Three Steps to Build the 21st Century Resource Recovery Infrastructure

1. By calling for a national recycling rate goal of 75 percent of all municipal solid waste[2]by 2015, the Obama Administration will set the stage for federal, state, and local policies to follow.

A 75 percent national recycling rate is achievable.  In addition, by calling for a National Manufacturing Reuse Goal of 30 percent by 2020 the marker will be set to immediately create a U.S. based market for recycled goods and materials.

An initial federal push for higher recycling rates included considerable public investment in programs that have been all but dismantled at the national level in the last 10 years. Even though the U.S. recycling rate is stagnant at about 33%, there have been impressive state and local initiatives. San Francisco now diverts 70% of its municipal solid waste and is on track to reach its goal of 75% by 2010, while the state of California diverts 58%.  Minnesota has reached a 40% recycling rate and South Carolina is at 28%. But eleven states are still below 10% and dozens of major metropolitan areas are in the single digits.[3]

The key to higher recovery rates is to set goals, as many states and cities have done, and develop plans to implement them. This has proven to be the first and most important step for successful programs.  Setting high, attainable goals has the demonstrated effect of spurring innovation, attracting entrepreneurs and creating markets. We need to pay special attention to the half or more of our discards that are organic to reach these goals.

2. The way to transform the U.S. waste infrastructure into a resource recovery infrastructure is to level the playing field for emerging programs by ending subsidies, tax credits and other federal support for landfills and incinerators.

Landfills and incinerators should not be eligible for funding through any federal stimulus initiatives, nor should they be included in any future federal renewable energy standards. These supports create a false market price that favors wasting and takes needed resources from developing reuse markets.

Removing organic waste from landfills is a critical part of building a resource recovery infrastructure. Burying organic waste in landfills creates methane and landfills are the largest manmade source of methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. More troubling for climate change implications, methane does greater short-term global warming damage than CO2.  Over a 20-year period – the time scientists are most concerned about – methane’s ability to trap heat the atmosphere is 72 times greater than CO2’s.[4]

The environmental and energy benefits of recycling are significant.  Even at the current low U.S. rate of 33 percent, recycling conserves the equivalent of approximately 11.9 billion gallons of gasoline, and reduces greenhouse gas emissions by the equivalent of taking one-fifth – or 40 million – of all U.S. cars off the roads every year. But the energy savings potential of what we are currently not recycling is enormous. The amount of energy wasted by not recycling aluminum and steel cans, paper, printed materials, glass, and plastic is equal to the annual output of 15 medium-sized power plants. In addition, recycling is one of the most cost-effective strategies that can be pursued to combat climate change: avoiding one ton of CO2 emissions through recycling costs 30% less than doing so through energy efficiency, and 90% less than wind power.

3. Invest in the 21st Century Resource Recovery Infrastructure.

We need to provide federal funds to state, tribal and local governments to assist in the transition.  Such funds can be distributed as block grants for resource recovery industrial parks (see Los Angeles CA, Alachua County FL, Hawaii County HI), real estate acquisition, planning and zoning, fleet and transfer station redesign and retrofitting, and R&D for composting technology and innovation. Once established, recycling and composting programs not only pay for themselves but bring additional resources, industries, and long-term jobs to communities.

Despite the vast potential of a national resource recovery infrastructure, misguided climate and “renewable” energy policies have provided far greater investment for trashing valuable resources in incinerators and landfills than for strengthening recycling industries. The technology exists to begin the transition to a resource recovery infrastructure, but there is room for continued innovation.  And as recent history shows, when goals are set, significant change can occur.


[1] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s U.S. Recycling Economic Information Study

[2] Municipal solid waste as defined here includes household waste, commercial waste, construction and demolition debris. Recycling is sorting, collecting, and processing materials to manufacture and sell them as new products. Recycling does not include incineration.

[3] United States Environmental Protection Agency, Municipal Solid Waste in the United States: 2007 Facts and Figures

[4] IPCC Fourth Assessment Report WG1, Chapter 2, p. 212: http://ipcc-wg1.ucar.edu/wg1/wg1-report.html (http://ipcc-wg1 NULL.ucar NULL.edu/wg1/wg1-report NULL.html)

These policy recommendations have been signed by the following organizations:

International Brotherhood of Teamsters Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives

350.org  • Alaska Community Action on Toxics  • Alaska Conservation Solutions
Alternatives for Community and Environment  • Apollo Alliance • Science in the Public Interest
Asian Pacific Environmental Network • Bay Localize  • Biodiversity Conservation Alliance
BioNeighbors Sustainable Homes, LLC  • Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League
Borneo Project • Boulder Zero Waste Trips • Buckeye Environmental Network – Ohio
Bring Urban Recycling to Nashville Today • California Students Sustainability Coalition
Caney Fork Headwaters Association • Center for Biological Diversity
Center For Environmental Health • Center for Health, Environment & Justice
Center for Policy Initiatives • Center for Sustainable Living
Christians Caring for Creation • Citizens’ Environmental Coalition  • Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future
Citizens for Safe Water Around Badger  • Clean Production Action • Coal River Mountain Watch
Coalition For A Safe Environment • Connecticut Coalition for Environmental Justice
Cumberland Countians for Peace & Justice  • DataCenter • Del Amo Action Committee
Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice • Earth Charter Lifeboat Academy of PA
Earth Circle Conservation and Recycling • East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy
Ecology Center – Ann Arbor • Ecology Center – Berkeley  • Elders for Earth’s Children
Energy Justice Network • Environmental Alliance of North Florida
Environmental Paper Consulting • Eureka Recycling  • Eyak Preservation Council
Faiths United for Sustainable Energy • Families Against Cancer & Toxics
Finger Lakes Zero Waste Coalition • Florida League of Conservation Voters
Floridians Against Incinerators In Disguise  • Food and Water Watch • Friends of the Earth – US
Global Community Monitor • Global Exchange • Global Justice Ecology Project
Good Jobs and Livable Neighborhoods Coalition
Grassroots Recycling Network • Greater Philadelphia Commercial Recycling Council
Green America • Green Delaware  • Green Dove Network, Inc.  • Green For All
Green Press Initiative • Greenacres Woodward Civic Association
Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice  • Greenpeace
Greenwich Citizens Committee, Inc.  • Health Care Without Harm • Heartwood
Help Our Polluted Environment  • How Green is My Town • Indiana Holistic Health Network
Indigenous Environmental Network • Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy
Institute for Local Self-Reliance • International Rivers • Ironbound Community Corporation
Kentucky Heartwood • Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy • Little Village Environmental Justice Organization
Michigan Environmental Council • Movement Generation • Neighbors Against the Burner
Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation • Network for Environmental & Economic Responsibility
New Business Model for Detroit Solid Waste Coalition • Orange County Recycling Cooperative
Ouachita Watch League • Partnership for Working Families
Person County People Rising In Defense of Ecology
Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization
Protect All Children’s Environment Protect Biodiversity in Public Forests
Providence Youth Student Movement
Puerto Rico College of Physicians and Surgeons • Rainforest Action Network
Rising Tide North America  • Rosedale Recycles
San Francisco Bay Area Physicians for Social Responsibility • Save The Pine Bush
Science and Environmental Health Network • Selkirk, Coeymans, Ravena Against Pollution
Sierra Club • Sierra Club Puerto Rico • Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition  • Solutions of Moab
Sound Resource Management • Southern Energy Network
Southern Indiana Renewable Energy Network  • SouthWest Organizing Project
Southwest Workers Union  • Spirit of the Sage Council • Story of Stuff Project
Student Environmental Action Coalition • Sustainable Energy & Economy Network  • Sustainable South Bronx • Tamalpais NatureWorks • Texas Campaign for the Environment • Texas Zero Waste Alliance
The Alliance for Appalachia •  The Annie Appleseed Project  • The Habitat Trust for Wildlife • Toxics Action Center
Valley Watch • Virginians for Appropriate Roads • West Virginia Environmental Council
Women’s Voices for the Earth