The environmental benefits of recycling are obvious: retrieving recyclable materials from the waste stream saves landfill space and conserves valuable natural resources. But a recent study prepared by Seattle-based economic consultants Sound Resource Management Group Inc. for the Clean Washington Center (CWC) shows that recycling can also be an economic alternative to waste disposal.
Traditionally, recycling programs have been hindered by the fact that they can cost more than disposal. The CWC, a division of Washington's Department of Trade and Economic Development, strives to make the recycled material cost competitive and hopes that its report will dispel the belief that recycling is too expensive.
The CWC report, "The Economics of Recycling and Recycled Materials," compares the 1992 costs for residential curbside recycling and disposal systems in four diverse Washington cities: Seattle, Spokane, Bellingham and Vancouver.
Five recyclable materials were studied - old newspapers (ONP), glass containers (cullet), plastic milk jugs (HDPE), plastic soda bottles (PET) and yard waste. The report concludes that in six high value markets, the recycled materials can be a cost-saving substitute for virgin materials.
The report examines recycling costs and the use of recycled materials from two points of view, the city's and the manufacturer's. "The city's perspective is important because this is who identifies which wastes to recycle and determines how much to charge its citizens. The manufacturer's perspective is critical because it is this recycled material customer who chooses whether or not to use recycled materials in their product and also determines the price they will pay for it," said Susan Bogert, the CWC's policy research manager.
The report also finds that the average net cost per ton for recycling in 1992 was lower than disposal in all four cities. Disposal costs exceeded recycling costs by a range from $13 per ton in Spokane to $65 per ton in Bellingham, with Vancouver and Seattle in between at $25 and $47 per ton, respectively (see chart).
Net cost per ton was determined by adding collection/overhead expenses and processing fees (for recycling) or transfer and disposal costs (for disposal), then subtracting the amount of revenue earned from sales of recyclable materials.
Each city varied tremendously in recycling savvy, explained Bogert. Seattle, for example, "spent a lot of time tracking and understanding their costs. They understood their system well and were very conscientious in contract negotiations," she said. As a result, Seattle has the lowest cost per ton among the four cities for recycling and disposal.
Bogert notes that Seattle and Bellingham have been recycling longer than the other cities, which might account for their lower recycling costs. Seattle began its curbside recycling program five years ago; Bellingham started its curbside recycling program in 1989, replacing a local nonprofit organization that had been collecting recyclables in several neighborhoods since the beginning of the 1980s. "People in Bellingham and Seattle have become more accustomed to thinking in the terms of recycling waste," said Bogert.
Only Spokane's system is completely city-run. The other cities contract collection. Spokane reported collection costs of $199 per ton but incurred no processing fee because the driver separates the recyclables into seven bins in the truck. The materials are sold to a private recycler. Vancouver also avoided processing fees by selling recyclables off the truck for a flat fee of $6 per ton.
The density of recyclable materials can increase collection costs dramatically, according to the study. Bogert notes that increasing density of lightweight plastic and aluminum containers, for instance, can make collecting recyclables more efficient and cost effective.
The study has sparked interest in further educating the public. "We wanted to focus on what recycling is really costing and even to inspire debate on the topic - as long as people are talking about and using the information," Bogert said.
For a copy of the report, call the CWC's report order line at (206) 587-5520.