Is Recycling Garbage?

Recycling's value always has been debated in the waste industry. With environmentalists on one side arguing in favor of its benefits and some solid waste managers on the other questioning recycling's cost-effectiveness, the discussion can quickly become as heated as talks about the Middle East crisis.

Until recently, however, it seemed that the questions were quieted, and recycling was more readily accepted as “the right thing to do.” Yet as the economy turned sour, government budget shortfalls seemed to awaken the murmurings, and some communities now are beginning to re-evaluate their curbside programs. Is this debate really more than just a “he said, she said?”

Examining New York

At the turn of the 20th century, a Civil War colonel and city official named George Waring had a visionary idea for waste management in New York City. He set up a program in which paper, wood, metal, rags and animal products were source-separated and recycled. Although the practice continued through World War II, residents of the growing metropolis had landfill space to spare and little incentive to recycle. Since the 1980s, however, when the city instituted its current curbside recycling program, New York's recycling rate has steadily grown to about 20 percent today.

In 1996, however, chinks began to appear in the armor. John Tierney, a New York Times reporter, wrote a controversial piece proclaiming “Recycling is Garbage.” In it, Tierney pointed out that behind the eco-friendly veneer of recycling often was an economically infeasible infrastructure. That same year, New York City decided to close Fresh Kills landfill, amid continuing questions about the city's recycling program and waste disposal options. Today, with Fresh Kills officially closed (although it is a repository for Ground Zero debris), the future of recycling in New York is as much in question as ever before.

In February, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced his plan to suspend a portion of the city's recycling program to help eliminate a $4.76 billion budget deficit. The initial plan would have placed an 18-month moratorium on metal, glass and plastic recycling, a move estimated to save approximately $57 million. The mayor's plan would allow paper recycling to continue because markets remain stable.

On June 20, the mayor and the city council announced a final compromise plan in which metal will continue to be recycled as well, but the city will suspend the recycling of plastic for one year and glass for two years. The mayor said that the suspensions will still save the city about $40 million.

Although Bloomberg insists that this is a stopgap measure, recycling advocates are concerned that it may signal the death knell of recycling in New York. With other communities considering similar moves, will recycling be trashed after all?

A Constant Challenge

Currently, New York City is paying up to $240 per ton to operate its glass, metals and plastics recycling program, but it costs only $65 per ton to $85 per ton to dispose of recyclables in the landfill. In a city as densely populated as New York, recovering only 20 percent of the waste stream may not be enough to justify the program. Part of the challenge is that residents often live in high-rise apartment buildings, where they are insulated from recycling and garbage, and where they have no yards from which to cull additional organic waste.

Recovering recyclables from multi-unit buildings, notes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, D.C., is “typically more challenging than collecting recyclables from single-family units. Variables such as space and layout, waste hauling contracts, length of resident tenancy and janitorial work agreements differ from building to building.”

Compounding the problem is the fact that New York City still has no concrete long-range plan for garbage disposal. Plans to build marine transfer stations throughout the city and in Linden, N.J. — from which trash would be transported for disposal in other states — appear to be on hold, mired in debates over its costliness. And, to the horror of most Staten Islanders, some people are calling for Fresh Kills to be reopened, an idea supported in a March New York Times editorial. Still, other states are bracing for an onslaught of the city's trash.

“Although [Bloomberg's] proposal is expected to save the city an estimated $57 million, the real costs are assumed by other states like Pennsylvania,” David Hess, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, testified before Congress in March. “Clearly, if this proposal is passed, Pennsylvania will receive even more waste.”

But in the face of a heavy budget shortfall, the city may have had little choice. “Considering all the problems that New York City is facing in health care and transportation, I don't think anything should be sacred,” says Chaz Miller, director of state programs for the National Solid Wastes Management Association (NSWMA), Washington, D.C.

“The department of course stands with the mayor and the administration on how we can amend this budget gap,” says Kathy Dawkins, spokeswoman for the New York City Department of Sanitation. “The department took a total $100 million cut, and everyone has to pull together to deal with it.”

Other cities also point to inefficiencies and inequities when considering suspending or altering their recycling programs. Atlanta, for example, spent $45.5 million to provide recycling and garbage collection in 2001, but earned only $35.6 million in revenue. In response, the city is considering changing its recycling collection from every week to every two weeks, and decreasing yard trimming collection from every two weeks to once a month. Baltimore and Charleston, W. Va., also have considered cutting recycling programs, and Albuquerque, N.M., is debating cuts to its public works department.

Recycling advocates worry that instituting such cuts may make it difficult to restart programs, even in sunnier economic times. For example, New York City may consider permanently banning the recovery and recycling of glass, the most costly material to process.

“If the opportunity for people who make things from post-consumer bottles and cans takes a hit as result of the tremendous loss of tonnage, it will make it ultimately less fiscally likely, in my opinion, to reintroduce the program,” says Lynn Rubinstein, executive director of the Northeast Recycling Council (NERC), Brattleboro, Vt.

Furthermore, advocates worry that, as New York goes, others will follow. “What happens in New York can influence services across the country,” says Kate Krebs, executive director of the National Recycling Coalition (NRC), Washington, D.C. “It's a battle that can win or lose the whole discussion about recycling.”

Balancing the Ledger

Krebs adds that New York's proposal ignores the other side of the balance sheet, which shows recycling's economic value. For example, the NRC recently issued a report, which found that the recycling industry includes more than 56,000 public- and private-sector facilities, 1.1 million jobs, $236 billion in gross annual sales and $37 billion in annual payroll. The largest industry sectors are paper and steel.

“What we've found in New York [State] is that, for every job that's created in collection, there are six jobs that are created utilizing those materials,” Krebs says. “We want to make sure that the discussion in New York is not just focusing in on the narrow collection part of the picture, but also the bigger picture, the other aspects of recycling. There's more to it than trucks running up and down the block.”

Krebs adds that although New York City is unique, the city can learn from the successful strategies of other large metropolitan areas, which are diverting higher amounts of waste. Systems that seem less vulnerable to cuts, Krebs says, include pay-as-you-throw programs, single-stream collection, co-collection of recyclables and waste, and collection of all plastic bottles.

“If recycling is funded by a general-fund activity or in some fashion that is not tied to the user, it appears [to be] more vulnerable, and that's what we're seeing in New York,” Krebs says. “If you look at cities that have direct user-funded programs, you typically don't see those programs cut; you see them flourishing. User[s] can see what they're paying for. It's not as amorphous as a tax bill that goes into a general fund and the elected officials decide where the money goes.”

Portland, Ore., for example, maintains a 50 percent recycling rate through a combination of pay-as-you-throw disposal, same-day collection of recyclables and trash, a mandatory commercial recycling program, and participation in the state's container-deposit program.

NERC's Rubinstein adds that additional energy must also be placed on encouraging people to buy recycled-content products. But she suggests that the “buy-recycled” message may need to expand to include a “manufacture recycled” message. If consumers aren't buying recycled, her theory goes, then maybe more education should focus on manufacturers, so that eventually, consumers will buy more recycled-content products whether they realize it or not.

Getting with the Program

But just as New York City appears to be closing a door, other cities are opening windows. Nashville, Tenn., is just one of several municipalities that recently has started or expanded its recycling programs.

Facing the closure of a local waste-to-energy plant, Nashville recently instituted a curbside recycling program, collecting only paper and aluminum. The plant had cost the city $84 per ton for waste disposal, an exorbitant amount compared with the $26.50 per ton it costs the city to recycle. Despite the savings, however, the city is banking only on its most marketable commodities.

“Because paper is 40 percent of the waste stream and it is so dense, we feel we can collect it once a month, which keeps our collection costs at $1.3 million a year,” says Chace Anderson, Nashville's assistant director of public works.

“Some people say you have to recycle everything because we live on a planet with finite resources, and some see it as we live in a civic community with finite funds,” Anderson continues. “You will do the most good by going after the largest part of the municipal waste stream and collecting items that will be well-received such as aluminum and paper, so the program can sustain itself during tight budgetary times.”

In November, San Diego completed the expansion of its curbside program to include all city residents, serving about 270,000 households. Yet the city is taking a more measured approach to its curbside yard waste program, choosing to expand beyond the program's current 146,000 households only where “yard waste generation and participation rates make it economically efficient to operate the service,” according to a city statement.

Clearly, cities still are investing in recycling, but they are doing so in a much more cautious way. “You can find as many cities that have expanded their programs as have cut them,” says NSWMA's Miller. “Do I think recycling is vulnerable? No. I don't see panic in the streets.”

Making it Work

Ironically, if recycling is vulnerable at all, it may be because of the gung-ho environmental marketing it has received in the past few decades. The idea that we should put every possible material out on the curb is environmentally ideal, but not always grounded in the real world.

“The primary emphasis always seems to be placed on conserving our natural resources and limiting what we put into our landfills with catchy slogans like ‘Reduce, Reuse and Recycle,’” says Ellis Bingham, director of environmental services for Fauquier County, Va. “Certainly this is important, but in doing so, the economic advantages of recycling often are overlooked or not properly presented to governing bodies.”

By limiting their recycling programs to the commodities that work, municipalities like Nashville or San Diego are slowly building their recycling infrastructures, which may allow the programs to expand in the future. Perhaps the same can happen in New York. To ensure this, recycling advocates must continue to bang the drum about recycling, but they cannot do so without also talking about economics.

“Americans want to recycle,” Krebs says. “If the political will is there and the economics are simple and streamlined, it can work.”

Is recycling garbage? Maybe it is, if we define garbage as the root of an established industry that's weathered its ups and downs. Then, maybe, it's not so bad after all.

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