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Recycling is Not Garbage

Detractors trash recycling as unnecessary and too much bother. But these conclusions are garbage, say two leading advocates, because they are based on tainted assumptions.

Ever since the inception of recycling, opponents have insisted that ordinary citizens would never take the time to sort recyclable items from their trash. But despite such dour predictions, household recycling has flourished. From 1988 to 1996, the number of municipal curbside recycling collection programs climbed from about 1,000 to 8,817, according to BioCycle magazine. Such programs now serve 51 percent of the population. Facilities for composting yard trimmings grew from about 700 to 3,260 over the same period. These efforts complement more than 9,000 recycling drop-off centers and tens of thousands of workplace collection programs. According to the EPA, the nation recycled or composted 27 percent of its municipal solid waste in 1995, up from 9.6 percent in 1980.

Depsite these trends, a number of think tanks, including the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the Cato Institute (both in Washington, D.C.), the Reason Foundation (in Santa Monica, Calif.), and the Waste Policy Center (in Leesburg, Va.), have jumped on the anti-recycling bandwagon. These organizations are funded in part by companies in the packaging, consumer products, and waste-management industries, who fear consumers’ scrutiny of the environmental impacts of their products. The anti-recyclers maintain that government bureaucrats have imposed recycling on people against their will-conjuring up an image of Big Brother hiding behind every recycling bin. Yet several consumer researchers, such as the Rowland Company in New York, have found that recycling enjoys strong support because people believe it is good for the environment and conserves resources, not because of government edict.

Richard A. Denison is a senior scientist and John F. Ruston is an economic analyst with the Environmental Defense Fund in Washington, D.C. and New York City, respectively.

Alas, the debate over recycling rages on. The most prominent example was an article that appeared last year in the New York Times Magazine, titled “Recycling Is Garbage,” whose author, John Tierney, relied primarily on information supplied by groups ideologically opposed to recycling. Here we address the myths he and other recycling opponents promote.

The modern recycling movement is the product of a false crisis in landfill space created by the media and environmentalists. There is no shortage of places to put our trash.

Fact: Recycling is much more than an alternative to landfills. The so-called landfill crisis of the late 1980s undoubtedly lent some impetus to the recycling movement (although in many cities around the country, recycling gained momentum as an alternative to incineration, not landfills). The issues underlying the landfill crisis, however, were more about cost than space.

Landfill space is a commodity whose price varies from time to time and from place to place. Not surprisingly, prices tend to be highest in areas where population density is high and land is expensive. In the second half of the 1980s, as environmental regulations became more stringent, large numbers of old landfills began to close, and many simply filled up, particularly in the Northeast.  New landfills had to meet the tougher standards; as a result, landfill prices in these regions escalated dramatically. In parts of northern New Jersey, for example, towns that shifted their garbage disposal from local dumps to out-of-state landfills found that disposal costs shot from $15-20 per ton of garbage to more than $100 per ton in a single year. Although the number of open landfills in the United States declined dramatically-according to BioCycle magazine, from about 8,000 in 1988 to fewer than 3,100 in 1995-huge, regional landfills located in areas where land is cheap ultimately replaced many small, unregulated town dumps. Landfill fees declined somewhat and the predicted crisis was averted. Nonetheless, the high costs of waste disposal in the Northeast and, to a lesser extent, the West Coast, have spurred local interest in recycling: two-thirds of the nation’s curbside recycling programs operate in these regions.

But landfills are only part of the picture. The more important goals of recycling are to reduce environmental damage from activities such as strip mining and clearcutting (used to extract virgin raw materials) and to conserve energy, reduce pollution, and minimize solid waste in manufacturing new products. Several recent major studies have compared the lifecycle environmental impacts of the recycled materials system (collecting and processing recyclable materials and manufacturing them into usable form) with that of the virgin materials system (extracting virgin resources, refining and manufacturing them into usable materials, and disposing of waste through landfills or incineration). Materials included in the studies are those typically collected in curbside programs (newspaper, corrugated cardboard, office paper, magazines, paper packaging, aluminum and steel cans, glass bottles, and certain types of plastic bottles). The studies were conducted by Argonne National Labs, the Department of Energy and Stanford Research Institute, the Sound Resource Management Group, Franklin Associates, Ltd., and the Tellus Institute. All of the studies found that recycling-based systems provide substantial environmental advantages over virgin materials systems: because material collected for recycling has already been refined and processed, it requires less energy, produces fewer common air and water pollutants, and generates substantially less solid waste. In all, these studies confirm what advocates of recycling have long claimed: that recycling is an environmentally beneficial alternative to the extraction and manufacture of virgin materials, not just an alternative to landfills.

Recycling is not necessary because landfilling trash is environmentally safe.

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.

Fact: While the prices of recycled materials fluctuate over time like those of any other commodity, the volume of major scrap materials sold in domestic and global markets is growing steadily. Moreover, many robust manufacturing industries in the United States already rely on recycled materials. These businesses are an important part of our economy and provide the market foundation for the entire recycling process.

In paper manufacturing, for example, new mills that recycle paper to make corrugated boxes, newsprint, commercial tissue products, and folding cartons generally have lower capital and operating costs than new mills using virgin wood, because the work of separating cellulose fibers from wood has already occurred. Manufacturers of office paper may also face favorable economics when using recycling to expand their mills. Overall, since 1989, the use of recycled fiber by U.S. paper manufacturers has been growing faster than the use of virgin fiber. By 1995, 34 percent of the fiber used by U.S. papermakers was recycled, compared with 23 percent a decade earlier. During the 1990s, U.S. pulp and paper manufacturers began to build or expand more than 50 recycled paper mills, at a projected cost of more than $10 billion.

Recycling has long been the lower-cost manufacturing option for aluminum smelters; and it is essential to the scrap-fired steel “mini-mills” that are part of the rebirth of a competitive U.S. steel industry. The plastics industry, however, continues to invest in virgin petrochemical plants rather than recycling infrastructure-one of several reasons why the market for recycled plastics remains limited. Another factor not addressed by the plastics industry is that many consumer products come in different types of plastic that look alike but are more difficult to recycle when mixed together. Makers and users of plastic-unlike those of glass, aluminum, steel, and paper-have yet to work together to design for recyclability.

Recycling doesn’t “save trees” because we are growing at least as many trees as we cut to make paper.

Fact: Growing trees on plantations has contributed to a severe and continuing loss of natural forests.
In the southern United States, for example, where most of the trees used to make paper are grown, the proportion of pine forest in plantations has risen from 2.5 percent in 1950 to more than 40 percent in 1990, with a concomitant loss of natural pine forest. At this rate, the acreage of pine plantations will overtake the area of natural pine forests in the South during this decade, and is projected to approach 70 percent of all pine forests in the country during the next few decades. While pine plantations are excellent for growing wood, they are far less suited than natural forests to providing animal habitat and preserving biodiversity. By extending the overall fiber supply, paper recycling can help reduce the pressure to convert remaining natural forests to tree farms.

Recycling becomes even more important when we view paper consumption and wood-fiber supply from a global perspective. Since 1982, the majority of the growth in worldwide paper production has been supported by recycled fiber, much of it from the United States. According to one projection, demand for paper in Asia, which does not have the extensive wood resources of North America or northern Europe, will grow from 60 million tons in 1990 to 107 million tons in 2000. To forestall intense pressures on forests in areas such as Indonesia and Malaysia, industry analysts say that recycling will have to increase, a prediction that concurs with U.S. Forest Service projections.

Consumers needn’t be concerned about recycling when they make purchasing decisions, since stringent U.S. regulations ensure that products’ prices incorporate the costs of the environmental harms they may cause. Buying the lowest-priced products, rather than recycling, is the best way to reduce environmental impacts.

Fact:  Even the most regulated industries generate a range of environmental damages, or “externalities,” that are not reflected in market prices.

When a coastal wetland in the Carolinas is converted to a pine plantation, estuarine fish hatcheries and water quality may decline but the market price of wood will not reflect this hidden cost. Similarly, a can of motor oil does not cost more to a buyer who plans to dispose of it by pouring it into the gutter, potentially contaminating groundwater or surface water, than to a buyer who plans to dispose of it properly. And there is simply no way to assign a meaningful economic value to rare animal or plant species, such as those endangered by clearcutting or strip mining to extract virgin resources. While many products made from recycled materials are competitive in price and function with virgin products, buying the cheapest products available does not provide an environmental substitute for waste reduction and recycling.

Recycling imposes a time-consuming burden on the American public.

Fact: Convenient, well-designed recycling programs allow Americans to take simple actions in their daily lives to reduce the environmental impact of the products they consume.

In a bizarre example of research, the author of “Recycling Is Garbage” asked a college student in New York City to measure the time he spent separating materials for recycling during one week. The total came to eight minutes. The author calculated that participation in recycling cost the student $2,000 per ton of recyclable trash by factoring in janitors wages and the rent for a square foot of kitchen space, as if dropping the newspapers on the way out the door could be equated with going to work as a janitor, or as if New Yorkers had the means to turn small, unused increments of apartment floor space into tradable commodities.

Using this logic, the author might have taken the next step of calculating the economic cost to society when the college student makes his bed and does his dishes every day. The only difference between recycling and other routine housework, like taking out the trash, is that one makes your immediate environment cleaner while the other does the same for the broader environment. Sorting trash does take some extra effort, although most people find it less of a hassle than sorting mail, according to one consumer survey. More important, it provides a simple, inexpensive way for people to reduce the environmental impact of the products they consume.

If we are serious about lowering the costs of recycling, the best approach is to study carefully how different communities improve efficiency and increase participation rates-not to engage in debating-club arguments with little relevance to the real-world problems these communities face. By boosting the efficiency of municipal recycling, establishing clear price incentives where we can, and capitalizing on the full range of environmental and industrial benefits of recycling, we can bring recycling much closer to its full potential.

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