Interview: NRDC’s Allen Hershkowitz The Natural Resources Defense Council's Dean of Recycling Practices What He Preaches

Dr. Allen Hershkowitz, senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), has spent the last 20 years up to his neck in garbage. The former INFORM researcher, advisor to the World Bank, the U.N. and several Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) advisory boards, Dr. Hershkowitz spends most of his time working on achieving environmental goals through economic incentives and green development.

Hershkowitz visits a Manhattan scrap metal recycler. “There absolutely should be a national recycling law in the U.S.”

For the last few years, Hershkowitz has worked tirelessly to create the controversial Bronx Community Paper Company, a $465 million paper recycling and community development project in the South Bronx, New York. When he was not wading through endless streams of permits and regulations, Hershkowitz was taking government and industry officials on tours of environmentally-responsible companies in Europe. Though the recycling plant has some opponents-including the New York City Sierra Club, which would have preferred to see a freight train hub on the site-most green groups see it as an excellent example of merging environmental improvement and economic priorities.

E caught up with Dr. Hershkowitz at NRDC’s energy-efficient headquarters in New York City. He was still full of outrage over “Recycling is Garbage,” John Tierney’s cover story for The New York Times Magazine last summer (see cover story). Hershkowitz wrote the NRDC’s 75-page “In Defense of Recycling,” an erudite and definitive response to the “waste is good business” mindset.

E/The Environmental Magazine: How did you first become involved with recycling issues?

Allen Hershkowitz

Hershkowitz: I came from a home of Eastern Europeans, where there was always a reuse of things. My parents were recyclers and reusers. It wasn’t an issue. It was just their ethic. I grew up in New York City, the bastion of liberalism. There were drop off places for bottles and cans, or we would give them to homeless people or people on the street. New York has a higher number of environmentalists then in many parts of the world.

Recycling is probably the single most successful environmental policy out there. Most people in the world today know about reduce, reuse, recycle. It is more widely practiced. More people participate voluntarily in recycling than voted in the last four presidential elections.

You said people understand the concept of recycling, yet the U.S. is 15th in paper recycling and 19th in glass. Why is that?

Well, because of economic incentives. We worked five years with a coalition of environmentalists on the National Recycling Act. By the time the bill went to market, we had to kill it because it was defining incineration as recycling. It was an anti-recycling bill by the time it was done.

Is the federal government going to subsidize recycled materials as they do virgin resources?

It’s not a question of federal subsidies for recycling. It’s a question of stopping federal subsidies for virgin materials. When people say look at all these subsidies for recycling, I want to know what they’re talking about. To this day, the energy industry—coal, oil and natural gas—gets billions in federal subsidies and tax breaks. Despite all this talk about a constitutional amendment to balance the budget and cut the deficit, we didn’t really make a big dent in a lot of the corporate welfare programs. We have to take the bias out of the system, which right now works against recycling.

What about the issue of energy? Aluminum and glass use more energy to recycle than plastic. Yet plastics are harder to recycle. Which is the better recyclable commodity?

The problem with plastics is that the plastics industry has taken no responsibility to seeing to it that their products are recycled. Basically, what we need is for the plastics industry to start the infrastructure for collecting plastics, which is very expensive. All industries whose products wind up as waste should have an financial obligation to see to it that their material is recovered and recycled.

Like Germany’s practice of forcing responsibility onto manufacturers?

Exactly. Germany’s program is new, but it’s absolutely right on. Municipal waste is the only waste stream that is managed by the consumer, as opposed to the generator. We’ve got to integrate the cost of waste disposal as a price of doing business. Remember CDs used to come in those big boxes? It was a grassroots movement that stopped the industry from doing that. But they’ll market a diamond ring in a refrigerator box, and not have any financial penalty for doing it, unless we assign each item its true cost.

What about pay-as-you-throw programs, which, in conjunction with strong recycling efforts, charge people by the pound for the garbage they generate?

Most people will accept recycling programs if you tell them about the alternatives. If you tell people that there’s a recycling program in the community, they’ll nod appreciatively. If you tell them there’s a landfill on the block, they’ll say, “Not here.”

Many people who are educated about recycling still oppose paying for the garbage they generate.

Well, they’re going to pay anyway. Pay-as-you-throw allows them to pay less. The majority of people want public recycling programs. People like recycling programs. It’s a very popular thing. I’ve done nothing but garbage for 20 years, and I remember very early on there were arguments about the government versus the private sector. Working at NRDC, we were very much involved in trying to get government agencies accountable for their environmental impact. Finally we succeeded in 1991 when we got the Federal Facilities Act, which made federal sites have to comply with national environmental laws. So working here, it was clear to me early on that the biggest polluter in New York state was New York State, and the biggest polluter in the country was the U.S. government.

How can businesses encourage other businesses to take more responsibility for wasteful manufacturing?

It takes economics to do it. Politics follows economics. We have to own the means of production. That’s why NRDC started the Bronx Mill. If we own the means of production, if we own the paper industry, we wouldn’t be lobbying Congress to keep our forest subsidies. We would be lobbying Congress to give us subsidies to locate in urban areas to use secondary materials. It really does come down to us being better at business, than the folks we’re trying to change. But that’s where we’re weakest.

Investment banking is social policy. Investment banking is more important to environmentalists, objectively, than nine out of 10 things Congress is going to do. Some company orders a fleet of cars. Well, did they order natural gas vehicles, zero-emission vehicles, or did

they order diesel trucks? That decision has nothing to do with what Congress is doing.

Do you think the private sector is going to take the initiative to establish recycled paper mills and recovery stations for recycled materials? Or is it going to have to come from mandates from the federal government?

There is no national recycling law, and there absolutely should be. There’s a national recycling law in Japan. Germany exports twice the gross domestic product that we do, and the Germans recycle two to three times as much. And they have a law.

Are industry groups like the American Plastics Council responsible for the low rates of plastics recycling?

Yes. Absolutely. The recycling bill we had worked on for almost five years was killed because Coke, Proctor and Gamble, Champion and the American Forest and Paper Association didn’t want it. The Grocery Manufacturers’ Association, which also opposed it, is among the most aggressively anti-recycling trade groups out there. Recycling is big business, but it is stymied by legislation. It’s like the telecommunications industry. It grows and grows, until it get a new law to help it grow more. Well, recycling has grown and grown and grown, but we don’t have a new law. We have a 21st century recycling infrastructure, with literally 19th century resource laws.

Was John Tierney’s New York Times article an honest look at the problems recycling is facing?

Tierney’s article was an intellectually dishonest and biased report by an ideologue. Tierney’s article is not hard to respond to. It’s an opportunity for us to show the shallowness of the anti-recycling rhetoric. And that rhetoric is coming from the big manufacturing companies, the big resource companies and the consumer products companies. They’re threatened by recycling because they benefit so substantially from virgin subsidies and an infrastructure built up over decades. Ultimately, we’re going to have to change, because when you look at the overall waste stream, we’re producing 12 to 14 billion tons of waste a year in this country. Globally, 30 billion tons of waste, at least. So in 10 years, that’s 300 billion tons of waste. Where’s it going to go?

Already there’s a big movement underway to start using agricultural waste in a much more substantial way. We’re starting to see experiments that use it in papermaking. China is big on using rice straw. But it’s going to be a battle. When Al Gore wrote in Earth in the Balance that environmentalism was going to be the central organizing principle of the 21st century, he was attacked by [then-Vice President] Dan Quayle, but that doesn’t mean that Gore was wrong. He was right. And the reason for that-the economic factor-is going to become very clear, very soon.

Will teaching children a recycling philosophy change their business and economic outlook when they grow up?

It will teach them connections with other things and other people in the world. Recycling teaches children that they’re connected to something they don’t see-a forest, perhaps. They’re connected to tribal lands that are getting dumped on. They’re connected to less-developed countries that are now recipients of hazardous waste. Talk about family values-recycling helps children understand them. Japan indoctrinates children from birth to these concepts.

What about Tierney’s point that it’s not so much less landfill space, but guilt people feel for overconsumption that makes them recycle?

If people feel guilty, and recycle because they feel guilty, OK. I would then say that they should get beyond that. That’s a lower consciousness. When I recycle, I think of my kids. I want to feel good with them. If guilt is what it takes to get John Tierney to do it, then I will accept that.

Do you think recycling is a bipartisan issue?

Of course it’s bipartisan. Republicans and Democrats support it. Businessmen and Greenpeace support it. The challenge now for recycling is not whether it’s good or bad. What’s going to kill recycling is if we can’t get the price right and make it more competitive economically. And that means if it’s not economic now, don’t abandon it, adjust the economics so it gets done right. The job for the environmentalist is becoming harder. Because we have to deal with so many different things. Do you want to know what my reading material last night was in bed? Spreadsheets. I’m working with investment bankers who would just as quickly finance a nuclear power plant, or a garbage-burning plant.

Does community pressure have a role when it comes to deciding between a recycled paper mill, garbage-burning plant or nuclear facility, or are financial considerations overriding?

The community pressure helps us reconsider the economic incentives. The economic direction is going to help us change the law. But the problem is, the popular will is being stymied by special interests. And corrupt campaign financing. When we were working on the National Recycling Act, we knew how much any particular senator cost. I knew that if I gave one particular senator $40,000, which was $2,000 more than Coke was giving him, he would have changed his position on the bottle bill. It’s not a shock to anybody that these guys are for sale. But I can’t go into my drawer and say “here’s $10,000.” We depend on community pressure, popular pressure, science, and rationality. But that takes you only so far.

If Al Gore runs for President in the year 2000, will we finally have an environmental president, as opposed to a Bill Clinton, who only speaks a good environmental game?

Gore is an environmental leader. He has shown his tenacity on environmental issues in this administration. He has consistently fought the fight that needed to be fought for the cause. It doesn’t necessarily mean he’s going to win. He’s up against big interests. No one could dispute the fact that this administration is a greener administration because of Al Gore. I think Gore is an environmental hero. Will he do everything the environmentally correct way if he becomes president? No. Can he? No.

But does Gore have real power right now?

Gore has a lot of power. I met with him. It was our connection to him that got the government to start buying recycled paper. What a revolutionary idea. Buy recycled paper. But it wasn’t going to happen without him. I look forward to the opportunity to see Gore campaign for president.