Tuesday, June 08, 2010

How Recycling Got Done in Delaware

Governor Jack Markell today accomplished what many thought would never happen in Delaware when he signed Senate Bill 234 into law. How did universal household recycling get done, when advocates, lawmakers and even governors have been trying to get this done for years? The answer lies in the shifting politics and economics of recycling.

First, the politics. Last July, I was part of a small group that gathered in the governor's office to ask him to veto House Bill 201, which I called the Un-Bottle Bill. We made the policy case for not killing the bottle deposit system—at least not without having an alternative in place. And we offered a political argument: if we kill the deposit system, let's make sure we get something in return.

Jack Markell announced his veto of the UnBottle bill the following Monday. From that moment on, any effort to repeal the bottle deposit system was tied to progress on recycling. Recycling advocates gained motivated allies among those who wanted to scrap the deposit system. The message for the bottlers, wholesalers, grocers and retailers became clear: If you want those returnable bottles out of the back of your store, help us get recycling done.

Advocates had been working to build a broad coalition in recent years. The Recycling Public Advisory Council (RPAC) was the center of data gathering and advocacy. I first met Alice Jacobson of the Maryland-Delaware Solid Waste Association at the first Delaware Environmental Summit in January of last year. She and her colleagues brought a summary of their draft legislation with them. When Jim Black of the Clean Air Council convened the Zero Waste Working Group (with backing by Rep. Mike Mulrooney), the waste haulers were at the table. Other industry stakeholders had joined the process by early this year.

In the meanwhile, Markell and his staff were holding meetings with key stakeholders. Throughout the process, environmental advocates made it clear that we would not willingly give up the deposit system for anything less than universal curbside recycling.

When Jack Markell announced the outlines of his proposal back in January, advocates faced a dilemma: Was universal recycling worth giving up the deposit system? Many advocates balked at eliminating the deposit system. For instance, the leaders of the Delaware Chapter of the Sierra Club (of which I am vice chair) decided that we could not agree as an organization to scrap a provision that the Club has explicitly advocated for years. Pat Todd, who has been described as the Godmother of the Bottle Bill, reluctantly acquiesced in the bargain. A key DNREC staffer said to me today that we would not be signing a bill if it had not been for Pat. I agree.

If the veto of the Un-Bottle Bill rearranged the political pieces, shifts in the understanding of the economics provided the policy basis for universal recycling. I first presented my analysis of the economics of landfill diversion four years ago, using an approach similar to one developed by Dick Fleming of the Delaware Nature Society. Fritz Schrank of the old blog, Sneaking Suspicions took my analysis to the next logical step by raising the more fundamental question of whether we could put a landfill in northern Delaware for any price.

Markell acknowledged the economic arguments for recycling in a speech delivered in April of last year:
Expanding recycling: despite the short-term economics of recycled materials, it will be much more cost-effective in the long-term to prioritize recycling instead of the purchase of another landfill site (assuming we could even identify one).
Advances in mechanical sorting have further reduced recycling costs and made it possible to replace the old system of sorting and separate handling with single stream collection. Single stream recycling improves participation and reduces handling costs. By making the system universal, which reduces unit collection and handling costs, the costs go way down without any need for the dreaded trash police.

There is much more that could be said about the last minute machinations against SB 234, including the threat to challenge the law in court, but by the time the late objections were raised, the political and policy groundwork had been prepared. Universal recycling is now the law in Delaware.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kudos on moving forward. On the other hand: a bigger move forward would have been to update the bottle bill AND universal recycling.

9:52 AM, June 09, 2010  

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