Mandatory Recycling Wastes Resources, Harms Environment

Published March 1, 2004

In mid-December 2003, the Seattle City Council decided to make curbside recycling mandatory. The measure, which goes into effect in January 2005, is a misguided step that will burden taxpayers, antagonize residents, and waste resources.

As an economist who has been studying recycling for nearly 15 years, I long ago learned that the desire for curbside recycling is based mostly on misconceptions. Here are some of the most serious errors.

Myth: We are running out of room for trash.

In the 1980s, the Environmental Protection Agency launched this myth with a study showing the number of landfills in the United States was falling. True, but the landfills were getting bigger, and the total capacity was increasing! Today we have 18 years’ worth of landfill capacity nationwide–even if no other landfills are built. Seattle sends its trash to Gillam County, Oregon. Additional landfills can be added there when needed.

Myth: Our garbage is dangerous.

EPA (known for being extra-cautious) says a modern landfill could cause one cancer-related death every 50 years. To put this in perspective, cancer kills more than 560,000 people every year in the United States. Fears of landfills are based largely on confusion with hazardous industrial waste disposal sites.

Myth: Packaging is our problem.

Actually, modern packaging reduces rubbish. American households produce one-third less trash than do Mexican households. Turning a chicken into a meal produces waste, but when chickens are processed and packaged commercially, the byproducts become marketable products such as pet food–something possible only if packaging is used.

Myth: Recycling always protects the environment.

Recycling is a manufacturing process, so it has environmental impacts. An EPA study found more toxic materials in recycling paper processes than in virgin paper manufacturing. And, as one expert puts it, adding curbside recycling is “like moving from once-a-week garbage collection to twice a week.” That means more trucks, with their extra air pollution.

Myth: Recycling saves irreplaceable resources.

Available stocks of most natural resources are actually growing rather than shrinking. How do we know? Market prices measure natural resource scarcity. Falling prices indicate a material is becoming more plentiful, and that is exactly what continues to happen for almost all raw materials. Resources such as timber are renewable, and non-renewable resources are more available than ever. They go much farther than they used to, and some have been replaced by resources that are even more plentiful. Skyscrapers and bridges use less steel than in the past; optical fiber (made from sand) carries 625 times more calls than the copper wire of 20 years ago. The list goes on.

Myth: Recycling must be mandatory.

Private-sector recycling is as old as trash itself. Scavenging may, in fact, be the oldest profession. Rag dealers were a constant of American life until they were driven out of business by a federal labeling law. Long before state or local governments had even contemplated recycling, manufacturers of steel and aluminum were recycling manufacturing scraps, and some even operated post-consumer drop-off centers.

Myth: Recycling saves resources.

Not necessarily. Using less of one resource often means using more of other resources. When the total costs of recycling and disposal are compared, on average curbside recycling is 35 to 55 percent more costly nationwide than conventional disposal. In Seattle, the city wastes resources by overcharging for trash pickup and under-pricing recycling pickup.

Recycling is a productive part of the market system. Informed, voluntary recycling conserves resources. In sharp contrast, mandatory recycling wastes resources–and Seattle’s latest political action misleads the public into supporting such wastefulness.

Daniel K. Benjamin is a senior associate of PERC, the Property and Environment Research Center, in Bozeman, Montana, and a professor of economics at Clemson University.