CURBING their Enthusiasm?

IN 2002, NEW YORK CITY MAYOR Michael Bloomberg outraged environmentalists and recycling advocates when he announced plans to curtail glass and plastic recycling in the city as a budget-cutting measure. That year, Gotham residents were spending up to $48 per ton more to recycle their waste than it cost to landfill or incinerate it, according to a report by the city's Independent Budget Office. In response, a spokesman for the mayor noted the report proved that “evaluating recycling has to be based upon an analysis of the overall cost of the program.” Put another way, it's the economics, stupid.

Despite the report's findings, however, Bloomberg announced in March that New York City would resume glass recycling and return to weekly recycling collections. Plastic recycling, which resumed in mid-2003, and metal and paper recycling, which was never suspended, will continue as well. But what are the true costs of the city's decision to suspend, and then resume, recycling? Is the cost of reclaiming a tarnished recycling reputation and re-educating New York residents about recycling worth it? Will it result in increased recycling rates and an even more cost-effective, and therefore secure, recycling program?

To be fair, New York City is not the only city facing this dilemma. Twenty years ago, starting a recycling program required little more than a leap of environmental faith. In the 1980s and 1990s, groups ambitiously announced goals to boost recycling rates skyward, achieve zero waste, collect all types of materials and encourage buying recycled. But the early years of the 21st century have been sobering. In tough economic times, pesky recycling problems such as contamination and flat markets have become deal-breakers. Today, municipalities are more likely to crunch the numbers and ask tough questions before they adopt, expand or cut back their recycling programs.

Returning to Recycling

Once again, New York officials cited shifting economic realities as the reason for the return to full recycling. According to the city, the suspension gave vendors time to reconfigure their operations to be more efficient and cost-effective. Recyclables now can be collected at $51 per ton, city officials report, which is about half of what the city was paying before the suspension.

A little perspective helps too; in 1994, it cost $275 per ton more to recycle waste than to landfill it, meaning New York City has come a long way. “Two years ago the city faced the most severe fiscal crisis in a generation,” the mayor says. “Costs were skyrocketing, and materials that should have been recycled ended up in landfills … [Now] we've found a more cost-effective and environmentally sound way to recycle.”

But New York City suffered a major public relations blow when recycling was suspended and copious ink was spilled about what the decision portended for recycling programs elsewhere. Almost overnight, city residents had to change their waste disposal practices. Now that recycling has returned in full force, the city plans to mount a “major public outreach effort” to inform residents about the new recycling procedures, which now require the commingling of glass, plastic and metal items. The New York Times declared that “New Yorkers are unprepared” for the return of full recycling. “Experience has shown that consistency and adequate information are two of the most important factors in a recycling program's success,” the Times reported. “But New York's recycling efforts have never had a surplus of either.”

The New York City-based Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has expressed concerns about the city's ability to revitalize recycling, stating that the city needs a “turbo-charged public education program.” In 2001, even before recycling was suspended, NRDC commissioned a survey that showed that most New Yorkers were confused about recycling procedures, which was hampering the program's effectiveness and wasting money. Yet Vito Turso, deputy commissioner of the city Sanitation Department, says that returning to a weekly schedule should make it easier for most New Yorkers to resume recycling. Whether this is true, and whether suspending recycling was truly worth the costs of resuming it, remain to be seen.

Taking the Plunge

Municipalities have long known that recycling is popular, if not always profitable, because people feel good when they put their bottles and newspapers out at the curb. Because of this, starting or stopping curbside recycling is among the most difficult decisions cities and counties can make. In Cincinnati, city officials had recommended eliminating curbside recycling to save money, which led to a widespread public outcry. In response, the city council recently announced plans to cut 27 municipal employees instead, resulting in $2 million in savings, most of which will be used to continue recycling for another year.

“Every effort was made to avoid affecting direct services,” says City Manager Valerie Lemmie. “However, reductions in administrative functions such as procurement, human resources and financial management will challenge our capacity to support the city's operations.”

Is Cincinnati just postponing the inevitable? Recycling is often more popular in theory than it is in practice. According to the Columbus-based Ohio Department of Natural Resources, in 2002, residential participation in Cincinnati's recycling program dropped from 38 to 34 percent, which means that only about 51,000 households regularly recycled. Some city council members are concerned that the voluntary program is not popular enough to withstand lean budget times. But for another year at least, recycling is safe in Cincinnati.

Farther west, Kansas City has finally taken the plunge into recycling, after years of waiting and watching as other cities struggled to launch and maintain their recycling programs. In March, the city began its new RecycleFirst curbside recycling program in 75 neighborhoods, and the city expects to expand to all households by December. As an incentive to recycle, only two trash bags per week will be picked up for free, with additional bags to be marked with a $1 tag. The driving concept behind such pay-as-you-throw systems is that enough material will be diverted from landfills, enough residents will resist paying extra for trash disposal, and that reduced disposal costs will make recycling collection economically feasible.

Kansas City's decision was long in coming. Again, what citizens say they support and what they actually do are two different things. According to a recent report, a survey of residents showed that 80 percent supported recycling. Yet Kansas City voters have shot down previous attempts to institute curbside recycling programs because they either limited trash to one bag or the additional costs were deemed too high. This time, the city is relying on a widespread public education program, led by Kansas City's Bridging the Gap organization, to encourage participation in RecycleFirst. The phased implementation system is designed to not overwhelm the city and give residents time to understand the program.

So far, city officials are cautiously optimistic that the program will be successful. The city spends approximately $8 million annually for trash collection and disposal for about 145,000 households. Officials are hoping that RecycleFirst will result in about 25 percent waste diversion, which would generate about $1.7 million each year — enough to cover the curbside collection program. In the first four weeks of the program, officials report, more than 237 tons of recyclables were collected, with residents putting increasing amounts at the curb as the weeks went on and with more than 40 percent of houses participating. “We are seeing great participation in most neighborhoods, and the vast majority of residents are becoming accustomed to the new program,” says John Stufflebean, director of the city's Department of Environmental Management.

Still, other communities remain resistant to curbside recycling. In Atwater, Calif., in Merced County, the city's 26,000 residents are currently deciding whether to implement a curbside recycling program. City analysts have estimated that a recycling program would reduce the amount of waste being landfilled, but at an additional monthly cost of $3.68 for residents. Although some residents already recycle in nearby cities, a recent survey showed that only about 115 Atwater residents regularly recycle. Adding to the cost is the fact that Merced County is one of only a few California counties without a transfer station, which drives up the toll for transporting recyclables. “I'm just not a recycler,” a councilman said at a recent meeting. “One hundred and fifteen people should not make everyone be charged $45 a year.”

Evaluating the Costs

In response to such charges, recycling advocates have always touted the environmental benefits of recycling, including reducing the amount of waste buried in landfills, extending landfill capacity, saving the energy required to process virgin materials and so on. Yet the monetary value of such benefits varies from place to place or may be difficult or impossible to discern. In light of that, how can communities truly estimate the costs of recycling?

One way is to commission a study, as the St. Louis-Jefferson Solid Waste Management District recently did. Conducted by Joe Martinich, of the University of Missouri-St. Louis, and Lee Fox of University Outreach and Extension, the St. Louis Recycling Economic Information Study was modeled after the nationwide economic study conducted by the National Recycling Coalition in 2001.

Based on business surveys, economic census data and statistical analysis, the study found that recycling in the St. Louis metropolitan area provides nearly 16,000 jobs and generates nearly $5 billion a year in revenues. The economic impact of the recycling industry in St. Louis, the study states, exceeds the impact of the industry nationally by about 25 percent. In addition, the St. Louis recycling industry includes nearly 1,500 businesses, which generate an annual payroll of about $640 million. Revenues and payroll figures exceed those of such local industries as utilities and food and beverage businesses.

Perhaps part of St. Louis's success can be attributed to its public outreach program, which focuses on the economics of recycling. Among other things, the waste management district has produced a booklet called, ”Less is More: A Guide to Reducing Waste & Improving Profits,” aimed at businesses. The guide frames recycling not in feel-good environmental terms, but in monetary terms that appeal to the bottom line. “Most people are aware of the environmental benefits of recycling, but the significant economic value is often overlooked,” says Dave Berger, executive director of the waste management district.

Near Ft. Bragg, N.C., researchers at the North Carolina A&T State University recently released a report called, ”Recycling Climate and Markets for the Sandhills Region in N.C.” The study examined recycling options for the Ft. Bragg area and the six surrounding counties known as the Sandhills. Studying feasibility and potential profitability, the study found that taking a cooperative or regional approach to recycling would likely be the most successful.

For example, creating a recycling consortium among Ft. Bragg, Fayetteville and Cumberland County would keep transportation costs low while boosting collection rates, the report states.

Despite this, a recent Fayetteville Observer article noted that previous attempts to institute recycling in the Sandhills region have been shot down because of additional costs. In the end, however, maybe costs and revenues are not as important as the economists would have us believe. One option, the article stated, would be for citizens and government officials to view recycling as a necessary service, such as road repair, that doesn't need to generate revenue to be worthwhile. This point was raised at the recent meeting about curbside recycling in Merced County. To show his unconditional support for recycling, one commissioner stated optimistically, “Everybody's doing it.” Certainly, almost everybody wants to do it, but the tough question is whether they are willing to pay the price.

Kim A. O'Connell is a contributing editor based in Arlington, Va.

Economic Impact of Recycling Industry in SLMA vs. National Averages

Annual payroll is in thousands of dollars; receipts are in millions of dollars.

Sector Industry
Recycling Collection Recycling Processing Recycling Manufacturing Reuse and Remanufacturing RRR Industry Total
SLMA Baseline SLMA Baseline SLMA Baseline SLMA Baseline SLMA Baseline
Establishments 29 85 221 166 107 74 1,101 1,053 1,458 1,378
Employment 354 296 2,305 1,543 10,406 7,027 2,711 2,369 15,776 11,235
Annual payroll 12,453 10,648 90,474 45,809 486,907 312,711 50,076 41,761 639,910 410,929
Annual Receipts 25.9 18.3 2,428 425.2 2,257.9 1,721.7 180.6 164.8 4,911.5 2,330
Source: St. Louis-Jefferson Solid Waste Management District, Recycling Economic Information Study,
SLMA = St. Louis Metropolitan Area


When it comes to recycling, the most important transaction might be selling the “recycling brand.” Last September, at the National Recycling Congress in Baltimore, Md., Candy Cox of the DDB Bass & Howes advertising firm noted that, to be successful, recycling needs to be marketed like any other product. Just as major companies constantly update their products' images, so should recycling advocates, if they hope to expand the customer base for recycling.

After conducting a survey of 3,500 customers and studying nationwide trends, DDB concluded that the longtime message that “recycling is the right thing to do” no longer has relevance to most Americans. Recycling's image suffers from the perception that the practice is difficult or inconvenient, Cox said. “It's hard to sell something that needs consistent and constant activity without a recognizable reward,” Cox added. Instead, recycling needs to be marketed as convenient, available and “cool.”

Creating incentives for recycling was precisely the premise behind the creation of America Recycles Day, now in its eighth year. Held every year on November 15, America Recycles Day is a national campaign designed to educate and encourage Americans to recycle and buy recycled products. In 2003, the campaign collected more than 150,000 pledges to recycle and buy recycled, which were entered into drawings for prizes including cars, mountain bikes and spa weekends. In the past two years, America Recycles Day has expanded its incentive program by awarding monetary prizes to communities and organizations that hold outstanding recycling events. Last fall, Fairfax County, Va., won the top prize of $7,500, for its “Fall for Fairfax” event, which featured a new marketing campaign for the county's recycling program and a community recycling road show.

As yet, America Recycles Day may not have the widespread appeal or “coolness” of Earth Day, but it is a step in the right direction, supporters say. Last year, the campaign's theme was “Make Every Day America Recycles Day” — proving that, when it comes to marketing recycling, its advocates have no shortage of ambition.