Why Recycling Programs Fail to Meet Expectations

Published November 1, 1998

Recycling programs, which began 10 years ago with high hopes of addressing the nation’s solid-waste problem, have failed to live up to expectations for profitability and consumer acceptance.

Recycling programs must be re-examined to determine whether public funds allocated for them might be better spent by state and local governments, according to a new policy brief, “Government’s Hand in the Recycling Market: A New Decade.” Written by Christopher Douglass, the September 1998 brief was issued by the Center for the Study of American Business (CSAB), Washington University, St. Louis. Douglass wrote the brief while participating in the John M. Olin Fellowship Program at CSAB, He currently is a CSAB research associate and enrolled in the doctoral program in government and foreign affairs at the University of Virginia.

While acknowledging that widespread support from the public has pushed recycling levels to all-time highs, Douglass notes that the movement, which gained new energy in the 1980’s, was based on two misconceptions:

  • The United States faced an immediate “landfill crisis,”
  • Recycling was the most responsible method of managing household waste.

Douglass argues that the mythical crisis was exacerbated in the late 1980s with the much- publicized story about the trash barge loaded with New York City garbage that was denied unloading rights along the eastern seaboard.

“The trash barge’s well-publicized failure to find a harbor was not the result of a lack of landfill space,” said Douglas, who cited an administrative error as the real culprit that kept the barge from unloading. The barge returned to New York after two months, and its load was incinerated.

While some of the nation’s landfills were closing, the shutdowns were confined to smaller, publicly -owned facilities that voluntarily ceased operations rather than pay the costs of complying with higher federal standards. There was little loss of landfill space, even in the densely populated Northeast. In fact, the newer landfills that were opened in the 1990s were larger than before, in order to offset higher operating costs.

But the “crisis” had left an impression on the public’s mind, and, by the end of the decade, 44 states and many local governments had responded to the growing concerns by creating recycling programs that today are foundering — in part because the federal government has shown little leadership in creating demand for recycled goods.

So where do we go from here?

Among other lessons, recycling gurus and environmentalists have learned that their programs produce different results for different communities, and sometimes recycling creates problems equal to or worse than the problems they are meant to address.

For example, take paper recycling. Although the process used to de-ink newsprint or office paper is being improved constantly, there still is the potential for creating a hazardous sludge. In general, the long-distant hauling of any recyclable requires energy-consuming vehicles – – whose exhaust systems pollute the air.

Douglass argues that Americans must now weigh the costs associated with recycling against their environmental benefits, especially because many of these programs that are operating at a loss and creating an extra burden on taxpayers.

Will more communities follow the example of Chillicothe, Ohio, which in January scrapped its $22,000 recycling program in favor of more pressing needs, such as new equipment for its fire department?

“Local governments must return to a fundamental question: What environmental and economic benefits are produced by recycling and at what cost?” asks Douglass.

“Only a handful of commodities have shown themselves to earn more than the costs that cities on average incur in collecting and sorting recyclables,” he continued, referring to aluminum beverage cans and plastic containers used for soda, milk and water.

Douglass concludes that in recent years, “many have come to recognize a disparity between the role recycling plays at the practical, day-to-day level and what is being discussed by environmentalists and policy makers as serious environmental problems. At a minimum, state and local officials would do well to better inform their citizens of the costs and benefits of recycling.”