Principal and VP

Susan Graff
Principal and VP

Letter submitted to the New York Times

The backlash against John Tierney’s misunderstanding of the economics of recycling has been swift. But his business case against using waste as a resource ignores why more and more businesses – from General Motors to Dow – are focused on sending zero waste to landfills.

Are these companies pursuing recycling despite it being bad for business? Businesses pursue reducing and reusing waste for reputational and regulatory reasons. But viewing waste as a resource to create new products also makes good bottom line sense.

Tierney laments what he mischaracterizes as a lack of progress since he first railed against recycling 20 years ago. The reality is that innovation in recycling hasn’t kept pace with innovation in manufacturing. Waste is more complex than it was 20 years ago, and our recycling infrastructure must adapt more quickly.

Businesses are investing in making recycling more efficient. The challenge is following suit in a public sector so squeezed for resources. But last we checked, the American way wasn’t throwing in the towel. Would we be satisfied today if we had stopped innovating 20 years into the industrial revolution because the iPhone hadn’t arrived?

The real lack of progress in two decades is Tierney’s — his pessimistic view hasn’t gained traction.


Matt Todd Senior Consultant

Matt Todd
Senior Consultant

It seems strange with the growth and investment in the recycling infrastructure over the past 30 years that the industry would need to defend itself against the thoughts of John Tierney – again.

The last time we heard from Tierney on this subject was in 1996.  It just so happens that 1996 coincides with a major drop in recycling market pricing at a time when coordinated community recycling efforts were being established across the country.

Tierney has timed his latest effort at an equally dismal moment for global commodity markets, and the syncing of his message with down markets is probably not a coincidence.  Apart from market conditions not much else is the same in 2015. We’re well beyond the question posed by Tierney, “are we wasting our time”?

Communities across the United States are on their 2nd and 3rd generation recycling systems.  This is the evolution of community recycling, and it’s now an established part of a global manufacturing supply chain.

The evolution in the recycling industry has taken us beyond feeling good and doing good, to infrastructure and business investment, building wealth, and developing an industry that competes in the global marketplace.  Operating successfully within this complex marketplace is the current focus of the industry – for both the public and private sector.  There are exciting opportunities evolving and the industry is primed for continued growth.

Community recycling programs have the most to gain as the recycling industry continues to mature.  Collection efficiencies, streamlined processing, and increased collaboration between the packaging and recycling industry will drive innovation and change.  Public/private partnerships are accelerating the evolution. So no…it’s not a waste of our time.

What do you think of the state of recycling? Give us your opinion in the comments section below.