From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine
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Counting the Cost of Recycling
Through time and trial, recycling has become a true green choice
Some people argue that recycling uses more energy than it saves, and thus it is not worth the effort. Is this true?
—Tigger Fox, Millinocket, Maine
Controversy over the benefits of recycling bubbled up in 1996 when columnist John Tierney posited in a New York Times Magazine article that “recycling is garbage. Mandatory recycling programs,” he wrote, “offer mainly short-term benefits to a few groups — politicians, public relations consultants, environmental organizations and waste handling corporations — while diverting money from genuine social and environmental problems. Recycling may be the most wasteful activity in modern America.”
Environmental groups were quick to dispute Tierney, especially on assertions that recycling doubled energy consumption and pollution while costing taxpayers more. The Natural Resources Defense Council and Environmental Defense, two of the nation’s most influential environmental groups, issued reports detailing how municipal recycling programs reduce pollution and the use of virgin resources while decreasing the sheer amount of garbage and the need for landfill space — all for less, not more, than the cost of regular garbage pick-up and disposal.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Solid Waste director, Michael Shapiro, also weighed in: “A well-run curbside recycling program can cost anywhere from $50 to more than $150 per ton … trash collection and disposal programs, on the other hand, cost anywhere from $70 to more than $200 per ton. This demonstrates that, while there’s still room for improvements, recycling can be cost-effective.”
But in 2002, New York City, an early municipal recycling pioneer, found that its much-lauded program was losing money, so it eliminated glass and plastic recycling. Recycling plastic and glass was costing twice as much as disposal, according to Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Meanwhile, low demand for the materials meant that much of it was ending up in landfills anyway, despite best intentions.
Other major cities watched closely to see how New York was faring with its scaled back program (the city never discontinued paper recycling), ready to perhaps jump on the bandwagon. But in the meantime, New York City closed its last landfill, and private out-of-state landfills raised prices due to the increased workload of hauling away and disposing of New York’s trash. As a result, glass and plastic recycling became economically viable for the city again, and New York reinstated the program, with a more efficient system and with more reputable service providers than it had used previously.
The lessons learned by New York are applicable everywhere, according to Chicago Reader columnist Cecil Adams.
“Some early curbside recycling programs,” he says, “waste resources due to bureaucratic overhead and duplicate trash pickups (for garbage and then again for recyclables). But the situation has improved as cities have gained experience.” Adams also says that, if managed correctly, recycling programs should cost cities (and taxpayers) less than garbage disposal for any given equivalent amount of material.
Even so, it better serves the environment to “reduce and reuse” before recycling even becomes an option.
For more information:
• Natural Resources Defense Council: www.nrdc.org/cities/recycling/gnyc.asp.