Recycling's Mid-Life Crisis

The mayors of two very different cities, Baltimore, Md., and Charleston, W. Va., recently proposed that their curbside recycling programs cease operations. They argued that recycling is a money loser that competes for tax dollars with more important services such as running schools and hospitals. They also noted that their recycling programs don't collect much material.

In both cities, a network of drop-off centers would be established for residents who want to recycle.

Recycling advocates responded with the usual arguments about environmental benefits and long-term savings for taxpayers if recycling programs continue. In Baltimore, they pointed out that the money the city would save by switching from curbside collection to drop-off programs would be burned up in tipping fees at the local incinerator. In Charleston, however, the cost of landfilling is much less than the cost of recycling.

What's going on? Are curbside programs starting to fade away and become a fad we fondly remember like hula hoops and lava lamps? Or is recycling simply going through the normal ups and downs that beset many causes that have lost their initial intensity?

Modern recycling began as a moral crusade. Fourteen years ago, the garbage barge, Mobro, sailed into temporary immortality. A press agent's dream on a slow news day, the barge galvanized state legislators to do “something” about the Mt. Everest of trash they feared was about to bury America. Within five year's of Mobro's voyage, most states passed laws requiring recycling at the local level. The recycling rate doubled between 1988 and today, and the tonnage of material collected for recycling has soared. Recycling's success seemed assured.

Every year, however, some curbside programs are shut down because they cost too much. But the so-called “anti-recyclers” who decried the expense and environmental excess of mandatory recycling shouldn't declare victory yet.

Yes, some of their arguments about recycling are accurate. Recycling usually adds to the cost of solid waste management, especially in the beginning years. And some programs are so picky about what they will and won't accept that even the most dedicated recyclers can't follow all the set-out instructions accurately.

I know of one county that publishes a manual every year on how its residents should prepare garbage, recyclables and lawn waste for pickup.

In this county, the instructions for garbage are easy. Just put it in a bag, put the bag in a 32-gallon cart and wave goodbye. Recycling has a complicated set of instructions for what can and can't be put in the blue bin, and how to prepare the good stuff. And the elaborate specifications for building a back yard compost pile are daunting. Fortunately, that county has a lot of Ph.D.s.

Recycling is doing nothing more than going through a mid-life crisis. In many ways, it is the victim of its success and of the inflated claims of its supporters. Recycling never could save the world. But Americans like to recycle and see it as one way of helping the environment. And when we can save money by recycling, we will be completely satisfied.

The columnist is director, state programs for the Environmental Industry Associations. 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]