Time for a New Look at Recycling

Published April 11, 1995

Recycling is popular. Across the country, Americans willingly separate their trash into “regular” and “recyclable” containers. New York City alone collects over 2,000 tons of recyclables per day.

But there’s a catch. Sometimes recycling costs money–lots of money. In some cases, it’s money taken away from other municipal purposes that are at least as worthy.

New York City, for example, is cutting funding for police, schools, and transit services as it struggles to close a budget deficit of $2.7 billion. The city is already spending a premium of $77 million over the cost of landfilling to collect and process 15 percent of its household trash for recycling. To reach its arbitrary goal of 25 percent, the city estimates it would have to spend another $100 million. City officials don’t believe that level is economically sustainable.

“It’s time to pull back and be reasonable,” says Deputy Mayor Peter Powers.

Municipal leaders in many localities are coming to the same conclusion: that recycling, originally sold as virtually a cure-all for solid waste problems and as an environmental feel-good to boot, has been greatly oversold.

As a former chairman of Keep America Beautiful (KAB), I have long favored programs that reduce litter and preserve the beauty and resources of our natural world. Recycling can be an important part of such efforts.

But enthusiasm for recycling has outrun its economic viability. Curbside recycling is particularly inefficient, since it usually utilizes a fleet of special trucks. Los Angeles, for example, has a fleet of forty trucks dedicated to collection of recyclables. Workers have to be paid to run the trucks and pick up the materials, and the trucks must be serviced. Costs mount quickly.

The total cost of collection and recycling activities usually is only partially offset by the sale of recyclable material to someone who wants to use it to make new products. Currently the markets for some items–particularly plastic bottles, aluminum cans, and certain types of paper–are strong. But recyclables are commodities, and commodity prices are subject to unpredictable swings.

A 400-page study by KAB shows that recycling adds to the cost of local solid waste management, even when disposal costs avoided and revenue from the sale of recyclable materials are considered. In a typical American community, instituting a curbside recycling and composting program raises the cost of managing solid waste by $25 to $48 per household per year.

“For a community of 500,000 residents, the total additional costs would be $2.5 million per year,” the study says. That is $2.5 million not available for police, schools, or fire protection.

The fact is that the collection of recyclables has been seen as an end in itself. It shouldn’t be. The level of recycling should be based on whatever each community decides is environmentally and economically justified. Collect what can actually be recycled–that is, sold to someone who can make it into something useful–and treat the rest as trash.

This may require municipalities to limit the items that will be picked up, or even to abandon curbside pickup altogether, as Washington D.C. has opted to do. Drop-off programs and charitable collection drives are often more economical than curbside pickups. They also allow for more selectivity–a program could be limited to certain kinds of plastic bottles, aluminum cans, old newspapers, and other materials for which a strong market exists. Material can be sorted at the drop-off point.

Drop-off programs are still quite viable. Franklin Associates, the leading research firm on solid waste issues, estimates that two-thirds of newspapers that are recycled come from drop-off programs. Only one-third are picked up at curbside despite the widespread use of curbside recycling.

Other materials that are collected but cannot be sold or have little value can be handled simply as trash. Energy recovery facilities or landfilling are perfectly viable options in most parts of the country. With current environmental regulations, these systems can manage a large portion of our consumer discards safely and economically.

A commonsense, market-based approach to recycling would recover significant amounts of recyclable material and treat the rest in a safe and efficient manner. At a time when government is being stretched to the limit and programs once thought important are headed for the chopping block, there is no reason to treat the collection of bottles, cans, and newspapers as an untouchable program.

Judd Alexander served as National Chairman of Keep America Beautiful, Inc., in 1986-87. He is the author of In Defense of Garbage (Praeger Publishers), a book on the economics of solid waste and recycling.