Jeffords pushes mandatory national recycling plan

Published September 1, 2002

Get ready to start separating, washing, and storing aluminum cans, if Senator Jim Jeffords (I-Vermont.) has his way.

Unhappy that only half of all cans purchased in America are recycled, Jeffords is pushing a bill that would force citizens to pay a 10-cent deposit for every aluminum can they purchase.

No economic sense

A decade ago, recycling peaked when Americans returned roughly 60 to 65 percent of their aluminum beverage cans. At the time, many states had mandatory recycling programs, usually requiring a five-cent deposit per can.

Since the early 1990s, however, the number of mandatory recycling programs has fallen as people got fed up with all the washing, storing, and returning of soda, juice, and beer cans—not to mention the pests that such cans attracted while sitting in household storage. When experience proved the bothersome programs made little economic sense, many were scrapped.

“There is no good reason why this nation is not doing a better job of recycling its cans and bottles,” lectured Jeffords in defense of his bill.

Jerry Taylor, director of natural resource studies at the Cato Institute, disagrees. “When recycling makes economic sense, government doesn’t have to mandate it or subsidize it. Somebody in the private sector will be happy to pay you for your garbage or, alternatively, charge you less for recycling services than for landfilling services.”

“Some of [the people] say it’s just not worth it anymore,” agreed Ford Schumann, who operates a small recycling business in Chestertown, Maryland. Schumann noted the price of aluminum scrap has dropped from 60 cents a pound to 20 cents a pound in recent years. Additionally, he observed, today’s soda cans use only half as much aluminum as they used to. Mandatory programs that made little economic sense to begin with make even less economic sense now.

Communities and states that run mandatory recycling programs do so at a deficit. Many cities and private collection companies simply discard the separated cans into their consolidated garbage. “When the price gets this low, it’s an easy way to improve their bottom line,” explained Schumann.

New York City offers a perfect example. Earlier this year, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the city would no longer collect plastic and glass. “The fact of the matter,” said Bloomberg, “was that it was phenomenally expensive, and most of it ended up being dumped in a landfill anyway.”

Bloomberg “was desperate to dig the city out of a $4.8-billion deficit,” explained Cato’s Taylor. “In doing so, he ripped away the veil on one of the biggest boondoggles of recent times. Despite flowery promises and earnest intentions, mandatory municipal recycling programs across the United States have proven an expensive economic and environmental flop.”

Voluntary recycling efforts have similarly fallen off. As Schumann explains, people have to collect up to six times as many cans today to get the same payment they used to collect. With aluminum prices declining and today’s cans being quite aluminum-efficient, there is little reason to recycle cans other than a vague notion of environmental altruism.

Environmental benefits minimal

“If the wood, sand, or various metals that we’re supposedly rescuing via recycling were actually in danger of running out, they have a funny way of showing it,” observed Taylor. Prices for all three have been falling, he explained, reflecting anything but a scarcity of these resources.

“Likewise baseless is the worry that we’re running out of landfill space,” said Taylor. “In fact, recycling is almost certainly worse for the environment than landfilling.

“After all, the process of extracting usable raw material from a manufactured product is an industrial activity every bit as involved as the process of combining various raw materials to manufacture a product. Both are energy and chemically intensive. And both create waste.”

A new tax

And therein lies the impetus for Jeffords’ bill. With recycling making little economic or environmental sense, and certainly less sense than it did 10 years ago, only federal intervention will stem the decline in voluntary and locally mandatory recycling programs. “Little sustains this odd brand of civic religion beyond the quasi-religious devotion of the Green faithful,” noted Taylor.

Jeffords’ plan would cost consumers an extra 60 cents per six-pack, $1.20 per 12-pack, and $2.40 per case in up-front costs to purchase beverages. Even that tax on non-recycled cans will be only partially effective, as many beverages are consumed at the park, the beach, at work, and at other locations where people do not have the time, patience, or ability to wash, store, and recycle cans.

So Jeffords has a backup plan: Beverage companies that cannot certify consumers recycle at least 80 percent of their cans will pay fines to the federal government. That will almost certainly cost beverage companies billions of dollars above and beyond the sales revenue they are likely to lose when consumers cut back on purchases. America has never recycled more than 65 percent of its cans, even when mandatory recycling programs were more prevalent and it made more economic sense to recycle.

Beverage companies, predictably, object to this de facto new tax on their products. “We have a fundamental problem understanding why there’s always this focus on beverage containers,” said Drew Davis, vice president for federal affairs at the National Soft Drink Association. “Why not focus on paper or yard waste?”

And who will pay these new taxes? You will, warned Davis, as companies in any business price their products high enough to cover their production costs.