Core Services

I WAS HAVING LUNCH the other day with an old friend who has been active in recycling for years. We were kicking around a lot of ongoing recycling issues, when my friend suddenly said that what really worried her was whether or not recycling is a “core service” for local governments.

If it is a core service, she said, recycling should be able to withstand the budget woes facing most cities and counties. But if it isn't, would cities start eliminating recycling?

She has reason to be worried. Citing budget problems, Baltimore, the host city of this year's National Recycling Congress, recently shut down its recycling office, reassigning employees to other programs. Charm City, as the locals call it, wasn't going to stop recycling, but how effective could the city program be without anyone minding the store?

Many other local governments also are in financial trouble. The past decade of economic growth pumped tax dollars into public sector budgets. Politicians happily spread the money around, ignoring the possibility that the economy would suffer a downturn and take its tax revenues with it.

Now, with the economy stalled, the federal government has given local governments a double whammy — increasing unfunded mandates for new education, health care and homeland security requirements coupled with reducing federal aid to state and local governments. State governments have responded by slashing aid to local governments, which will respond by raising taxes or cutting programs or both. Core services will survive, but won't be funded.

Not all public officials would agree what to include on a list of core services. Certainly police, fire protection, garbage collection and education would be included. But what about libraries, parks, recreation centers and cultural programs? And where does recycling fit in? Is it a core service or a luxury?

Recycling probably falls somewhere in-between the two. When it's discontinued, its supporters can be vociferous, as New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg discovered when he stopped plastic and glass collection last year.

But New York City may be unique. For decades, the city paid below market rates for garbage disposal by dumping its trash in a local wetland known as the Fresh Kills landfill. Now, it pays market prices to use Subtitle D facilities located in other states. And if the city lifts the rate cap on commercial garbage collection, businesses will have additional incentive to recycle.

Local governments have other cost-saving options besides discontinuing recycling. They can privatize solid waste and recycling services to save money. Cities also are more likely to switch to single-stream collection programs to save on collection costs.

The real danger to recycling is not the sudden discontinuation of curbside programs. Instead, the slow rot of trimmed budgets, reduced service and discontinued public education programs could sap the vitality of weaker recycling programs.

Is recycling a core service? The politicians and voters will have the final say. Stay tuned, the debate will be interesting.

Opinions in this column do not necessarily reflect the National Solid Wastes Management Association or the Environmental Industry Associations. E-mail the author at: [email protected]

The columnist is state programs director for the Environmental Industry Associations, Washington, D.C.