Lake County, Ohio Scraps Flagship Recycling Program

Published February 1, 2006

Lake County, Ohio, which has long subsidized the state’s flagship recycling program, has decided to scrap curbside recycling. County commissioners announced the decision December 1, blaming escalating and unjustified costs for the program.

Instead of providing curbside pickup of materials placed in recycling bins, the county has designated 30 locations where residents can drop off their paper, plastic, aluminum, and glass. The dropoff locations began accepting recyclable waste on January 1.

Rising Costs Doomed Program

Lake County, which covers Cleveland’s far northeast suburbs, launched its curbside recycling program in 1993. At that time, the county imposed new fees on landfill deposits, which in turn subsidized curbside recycling. The county subsidized recycling at the rate of $1 per month per household.

As recycling costs rose over time, the recycling program began running a deficit even with the county subsidies. In 2003 the county mandated that each city, village, and township in the county provide an additional $.69 per month recycling subsidy per household.

By the end of 2005, county commissioners realized local authorities would have to double their subsidy for the program to break even, and there was no guarantee the subsidies would not continue to rise in the future. Numerous local officials told the county the recycling subsidies would break their budgets, so the county decided to end its curbside recycling experiment.

Activists Disappointed

While taxpayers will benefit from the end of ever-increasing recycling subsidies, some recycling activists expressed disappointment at the demise of the program.

“I’m shocked, heartbroken, really,” Andrew Booker, solid waste planning supervisor for the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, told the Cleveland Plain Dealer for a December 1, 2005 story. “Lake County was always the leader, the one county we could point to that was doing a comprehensive plan.”

“Some of the hard-liners aren’t happy about this, because we were always the poster child for recycling,” admitted Lake County Solid Waste Coordinator Chris Hodges for the Plain Dealer article. “Everyone wants to be an environmentalist, but it eventually becomes a cost-benefit ratio thing, too,” added County Commissioner Dan Troy.

Recycling’s Benefits Questioned

While Lake County has discovered recycling programs are costly, the benefits are few, Property and Environment Research Center (PERC) Senior Associate Daniel Benjamin said.

“Contrary to what the activists claim, we are not running out of landfill space,” said Benjamin. “The number of landfills in the United States is falling, but the landfills are getting bigger, and the total capacity is increasing. Today we have 18 years’ worth of landfill capacity nationwide–even if no other landfills are built.

“Moreover, recycling is a manufacturing process, so it has environmental impacts,” Benjamin added. “An EPA study found more toxic materials in recycling paper processes than in virgin paper manufacturing.

“Still further,” Benjamin observed, “curbside recycling requires another round of collection trucks stopping at every household in the county.This means more trucks driving more miles, wasting more fuel, and adding more air pollution to our skies.”

Costs Outweighed Benefits

“When state government mandated recycling programs, people felt good about helping the environment,” reported a November 27 Cleveland News-Herald house editorial. “But feeling good about helping the environment only goes so far as one’s wallet.

“But like any change, this eventually will become the norm,” the News-Herald explained. “County leaders aren’t faulted for making a wise business decision. The cost-benefit analysis of curbside recycling made it untenable.”

“This decision is extremely disappointing,” local high school teacher Scott McLaughlin said. “I don’t know why they can’t ask the public if they would be willing to pay for it. I think that if the trash pick-up in Lake County went to a pay-as-you-throw program, it could help cut down the trash fee and further support the recycling program.”

“If recycling made economic sense, government would not have to mandate it or subsidize it,” countered Jerry Taylor, director of natural resource studies at the Cato Institute. “Recycling companies would willingly pay people for their recyclable waste or charge governments less to reprocess waste than landfills charge to store it.”

James M. Taylor ([email protected]) is managing editor of Environment & Climate News.