RECYCLING: Is Mandatory Recycling A Wasted Effort?

Even the harshest critics admit that it's difficult to accurately document the real costs and benefits of a recycling program. To prove that numbers can be manipulated and misinterpreted, a policy analysis from the Cato Institute, Washington, D.C., attempts to refute the effectiveness of one of the country's most progressive mandatory recycling programs.

In the study, "Wasting Resources To Reduce Waste: Recycling In New Jersey," authors Katherine Doyle and Grant Schaumburg Jr. claim that, under the guise of saving money and conserving resources, the state is in fact guilty of wasting taxpayer dollars on a program awash in bureaucracy and mismanagement.

The only beneficiaries of New Jersey's recycling program, they say, are government bureaucrats, local governments and the waste management, public relations and recycling industries. Meanwhile, households and commercial establishments unknowingly finance the program through hidden taxes.

The 1987 New Jersey Statewide Mandatory Source Separation and Recycling Act, the first to aim at recycling 25 percent of a state's total municipal solid waste, covers metal, glass, paper, plastic containers and food wastes. The increased tax on landfilled waste, at $1.50 per ton, reportedly yields about $15 million each year for the State Recycling Fund.

While the authors admit that the recycling program achieves some goals, they assert that the costs of mandatory recycling far outweigh the benefits - by an estimated $100 per ton. The New Jersey State Office of Recycling claims that 4.8 million tons of material were recycled in the state in 1990, but problems with measurement and enforcement "undermine the state's attempts to track recycling totals."

For example, since the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection accepts three types of documentation for grant applications, "a recycling broker, market and municipality can each get credit for the same ton of material, which can lead to greatly exaggerated recycling totals." Also, the authors discredit the ability of municipalities and counties to track recycling efforts since they "have a direct incentive to inflate their recycling totals to maximize their receipt of tonnage grant money."

State-determined recycling totals also are skewed, the study says, because waste haulers can avoid paying the tax by disposing recyclables illegally.

According to the authors, the waste management industry benefits from the recycling legislation, which has decreased dependence on landfills but has resulted in higher tipping fees at distant landfills that charge up to $70 per ton.

To prove their theory, the authors cite a comparison of recycling totals in five major solid waste categories for 1980 and 1990. Compiled from the State Advisory Committee on Recycling and the Emergency Solid Waste Assessment Task Force, the table attributes only 497,000 tons per year, or less than 4 percent of the state's total waste stream, to the Mandatory Recycling Act.

While recycling does save some resources, the state doesn't consider its detrimental effects, the authors believe: "It takes labor, capital and energy to manage, collect, sort, sell, ship, process, remanufacture and market recyclables." Furthermore, some recycling processes, such as the de-inking process for old newspapers, can actually damage the environment by generating tons of toxic waste. "Thirteen of the 50 worst sites on the Superfund National Priority List are recycling facilities," the study claims.

As more states enact mandatory recycling laws and the federal government seems poised to jump on the bandwagon, the authors warn that "deregulation of waste management would save the millions of dollars wasted on uneconomic separation, collection and administration."