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Fact: Landfills are major sources of air and water pollution, including greenhouse gas emissions.

According to “Recycling Is Garbage,” municipal solid waste landfills contain small amounts of hazardous lead and mercury, but studies have found that these poisons stay trapped inside the mass of garbage even in the old unlined dumps that were built before today’s stringent regulations. But this statement is simply wrong. In fact, 250 out of 1,204 toxic waste sites on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund National Priority List are former municipal solid waste landfills. And a lot more than just lead and mercury goes into-and comes out of-ordinary landfills. The leachate that drains from municipal landfills is remarkably similar to that draining from hazardous waste landfills in both composition and concentration of pollutants. While most modern landfills include systems that collect some or all of this leachate, these systems are absent from older facilities that are still operating. Moreover, even when landfill design prevents leachate from escaping and contaminating groundwater, the collected leachate must be treated and then discharged. This imposes a major expense and burden on already encumbered plants that also treat municipal sewage.

What’s more, decomposing paper, yard waste, and other materials in landfills produce a variety of harmful gaseous emissions, including volatile organic chemicals, which add to urban smog, and methane, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. Only a small minority of landfills operating today collect these gases; as of 1995, the EPA estimates, only 17 percent of trash was disposed of in landfills equipped with gas-collection systems. According to a 1996 study by the EPA, landfills give off an estimated 36 percent of all methane emissions in the United States. We estimate that methane emissions from landfills in the United States are 24 percent lower than they would be if recycling were discontinued.

Recycling is not cost effective. It should pay for itself.

Fact: We do not expect landfills or incinerators to pay for themselves, nor should we expect this of recycling. No other form of waste disposal, or even waste collection, pays for itself. Waste management is simply a cost society must bear.

Unlike the alternatives, recycling is much more than just another form of solid waste management. Nonetheless, setting aside the environmental benefits, let’s approach the issue as accountants. The real question communities must face is whether adding recycling to a traditional waste-management system will increase the overall cost of the system over the long term. The answer, in large part, depends on the design and maturity of the recycling program and the rate of participation within the community.

Taking a snapshot of recycling costs at a single moment early in the life of community programs is misleading. For one thing, prices of recyclable materials fluctuate, so that an accurate estimate of revenues emerges only over time. For another, costs tend to decline as programs mature and expand. Most early curbside recycling collection programs were inherently inefficient because they duplicated existing trash-collection systems. Often two trucks and crews drove down the same streets every week to collect the same amount of material that one truck used to handle. Many U.S. cities have since made their recycling collection systems more cost-effective by changing truck designs, collection schedules, and truck routes in response to the fact that picking up recyclable refuse and yard trimmings leaves less trash for garbage trucks to collect. For example, Visalia, Calif., has developed a truck that collects refuse and recyclable materials simultaneously. And Fayetteville, Ark., added curbside recycling with no increase in residential bills by cutting back waste collection from twice weekly to once.

Several major cities-Seattle, San Jose, Austin, Cincinnati, Green Bay, and Portland, Ore.-have calculated that their per-ton recycling costs are lower than per-ton garbage collection and disposal. In part, these results may reflect the overall rate of recycling: a study of recycling costs in 60 randomly selected U.S. cities by the Ecodata consulting firm in Westport, Conn., found that in cities with comparatively high levels of recycling, per-ton recycling collection costs were much lower than in cities with low recycling rates. A similar survey of 15 North Carolina cites and counties conducted by the North Carolina Department of Environment, Health, and Natural Resources found that in municipalities with recycling rates greater than 12 percent, the per-ton cost of recycling was lower than that for trash disposal. Higher rates allow cities to use equipment more efficiently and generate greater revenues to offset collection costs. If we factor in increased sales of recyclable materials and reductions in landfill disposal costs, many of these high-recycling cities may break even or make money from recycling, especially in years when prices are high.

Seattle, for example, has achieved a 39 percent recycling/composting collection rate in its residential curbside program and a 44 percent collection rate citywide. Analysis of nine years of detailed data collected by the Seattle Solid Waste Utility shows that, after a two-year startup period, recycling services saved the city’s solid waste management program $1.7 to $2.8 million per year. These savings occurred during a period of reduced market prices for recyclable materials; the city’s landfill fees, meanwhile, are slightly above the national average. In 1995, when prices for recyclable materials were higher, Seattle’s recycling program generated savings of approximately $7 million in a total budget of $29 million for all residential solid waste management services.

To reduce the cost of recycling programs, U.S. communities need to boost recycling rates. A study of 500 towns and cities by Skumatz Economic Research Associates in Seattle, Wash., found that the single most powerful tool in boosting recycling is to charge households for the trash they don’t recycle. This step raised recycling levels by 8 to 10 percent on average. These kinds of variable-rate programs are now in place in more than 2,800 communities, compared with virtually none a decade ago.

Recycled materials are worthless; there is no viable market for them.

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