The writer, of Omaha, co-founded Firstar Fiber in 1997 and is former executive director of the Nebraska Recycling Association.
Since the Omaha World-Herald article “Recycling services may end if deal isn’t revised” appeared, I have been asked two pertinent questions for which I have these emphatic responses: Has recycling run its course? It most definitely has not. Is it worth the effort? Most definitely.
As CEO of Firstar Fiber, the contracted processor of the City of Omaha residents’ recyclables, you might naturally think me biased. Fair enough. But I base my positions on an almost 40-year career that began when there were markets for only a handful of items.
In addition, to make those acceptable to the few available buyers, we had to ask the public to take extraordinary measures to sort and clean the materials.
Now far more materials can be recycled, and fewer demands are made of residents to participate. This is not to say recycling isn’t again encountering major challenges; however, its economic foundations remain solid, and recycling markets most certainly will endure.
The current situation was caused in large part by China’s choice to stop accepting contaminated recyclables, a reasonable decision. However, one simple reason explains why recycling will rebound and is worth the effort: Inhabitants of a finite planet have needs that cannot and will not be long denied.
With nearly a quarter of global manufacturing output by value coming from China, recycling and resource conservation remain vital to our lives and to that of our 7 billion planetary neighbors.
Proving this point, Chinese firms have begun to buy and operate American paper pulp mills and scrap plastic washing operations. Why? So they can ship clean fiber and resins to their manufacturing plants back at home because their need for these resources never ended.
For better or worse, these efforts most likely will return China to its position of just a few years ago of consuming 30% of all of the United States’ recyclables. Plus, and most definitely for the better, American firms have themselves stepped up to invest in using these secondary resources simply because using recyclables saves energy and is economically the smart thing to do.
Compare those positive outcomes to the downsides of landfilling. With it, far fewer jobs are created, future wealth-creating resources are lost forever and there are numerous hidden costs, not the least of which is that “waste material” thought to have “gone away” may return in our drinking water or as contributions to greenhouse gases.
One more lesson to be learned from the Chinese: No one buys garbage. This is true despite what many Americans must believe, judging by what we find in the recycling stream on a daily basis, such as dirty diapers and even nastier things.
To protect our 120 employees and yet make recycling as convenient as possible for residents, we and others within our industry have invested in sophisticated mechanical processing technologies. These efforts are costly, but definitely necessary for recycling to be sustainable.
In summary, recycling is both very much alive, and it is still worth everyone’s support. Know this also: Firstar Fiber fully appreciates residents’ efforts to recycle, and we are doing everything in our power to deserve their continued support.