By Jane S. Shaw
Recycling is the process of converting waste products into reusable materials. Recycling differs from reuse, which simply means using a product again. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), about 30 percent of U.S. solid waste (i.e., the waste that is normally handled through residential and commercial garbage-collection systems) is recycled. About 15 percent is incinerated and about 55 percent goes into landfills.
Recycling is appealing because it seems to offer a way to simultaneously reduce the amount of waste disposed in landfills and save natural resources. During the late 1980s, as environmental concerns grew, public opinion focused on recycling as a prime way to protect the environment. Governments, businesses, and the public made strenuous efforts to recycle. By 2000, the recycling rate had nearly doubled the 1990 rate of 16 percent. A big portion of the increase has been in yard trimmings and food scraps collected for composting.
Recycling, however, is not always economically efficient or even environmentally helpful. The popular emphasis on recycling stems partly from misconceptions. One misconception is that landfills and incinerators are environmentally risky. It is true that at one time landfills were constructed to fill in swamps (sometimes to reduce insect infestation). If material leaked out from the landfill, it could contaminate nearby waters. But today landfills are sited away from wetlands. They are designed to keep their contents dry, and monitoring programs ensure that any leakage that does occur is caught before it causes harm.
Another misconception is that we are running out of landfill space. The truth is that landfills today are large enough to accommodate the solid waste produced by the United States until 2019, even if no new ones are established. Economist Daniel Benjamin (2003) reports that the fear of running out of landfill space stems from an EPA study in the 1980s that counted landfills rather than landfill capacity. In fact, the report omitted the fact that landfill space was actually increasing because sites were getting larger. Indeed, the EPA continues to publish a chart showing the declining number of landfills even while stating that “at the national level, capacity does not seem to be a problem, although regional dislocations sometimes occur” (EPA 2002, p. 14).
People also tend to overestimate how much space is required to bury our trash. Numerous studies have shown that it is not all that much. Statistician Bjørn Lomborg has calculated that a ten-mile-square, 255-foot-deep landfill could contain all the trash produced in the United States over the next century.
The Economics of Recycling
In the absence of government regulation, the economics of each material determines how much of it is recycled. For example, about 55 percent of all aluminum cans were recycled in 2000. Recycling of beverage cans goes back to 1968, when the Reynolds Metals Company started a pilot project. The chief motivation was to respond to public concerns about litter, which were spurring laws that required deposits on beverage containers. But energy prices began to rise during the 1970s and, because producing new aluminum from bauxite requires large amounts of energy, recycling aluminum cans became economically attractive.
About 56 percent of paper and cardboard was recycled in 2000. Recycling is economically rewarding because cardboard can be made from a wide variety of used paper. In addition, because many places (such as supermarkets and discount stores) use large quantities of corrugated boxes, collection costs can be low.
In contrast, only about 9 percent of plastic packaging is recycled. Because different plastic resins cannot be mixed together and reprocessed, plastics must be separated at some point if they are to be recycled. The plastics packaging industry has developed symbols for different kinds of resins, but people do not seem eager to separate plastic. In addition, the relatively low cost of producing new plastic from oil-based petrochemicals makes recycling less economically rewarding.
Ironically, recycling does not eliminate environmental worries. Recycling is a manufacturing process and, like other manufacturing processes, can produce pollution. An EPA study of toxic chemicals found such chemicals in both recycling and virgin paper processing, and for most of the toxins studied, the recycling process had higher levels than the virgin manufacturing did. Nor will recycling more newspapers necessarily preserve trees, because many trees are grown specifically to be made into paper. A study prepared for the environmental think tank Resources for the Future estimated that if paper recycling reached high levels, demand for virgin paper would fall. As a result, writes economist A. Clark Wiseman, “some lands now being used to grow trees will be put to other uses.” The impact would not be large, but it would be the opposite of what most people expect—there would be fewer trees, not more. Finally, curbside recycling programs require additional trucks, which use more energy and create more pollution.
The private sector typically adopts recycling when and where it makes economic sense. When recycling is a government program, however, it can be costly and can waste rather than save resources. Using figures collected by Franklin Associates, Daniel Benjamin compared the costs of traditional municipal waste disposal (by landfill, but allowing residents to drop off material for recycling) and curbside recycling (where the city picks up recyclables separate from trash). He found that the curbside recycling programs cost between 35 and 55 percent more than the traditional landfill disposal. Recycling programs used “huge amounts of capital and labor,” writes Benjamin. Used materials were sold, but the costs of workers and equipment vastly outweighed the revenues from their sale.
Other problems arise, too. In 2003, the citizens of Tucson, Arizona, were disturbed to learn that the city’s recycling contractor was landfilling glass that many of them had separated and put into recycling bins. Prices for recycled glass had fallen so low that it would have cost eighty dollars a ton to ship it to Los Angeles to find a buyer. Depositing the glass in a landfill cost only twenty-eight dollars per ton.
These facts, however, have not stopped many local governments from establishing expensive curbside programs. Seattle’s city council went even further in December 2003, voting to make recycling mandatory. When the program went into effect in 2005, residents were prohibited from putting any recyclables into their trash. The city’s previous method of charging residents on a per-trash-can basis (charging more for larger cans) provided an inducement to reduce waste, whether through recycling or other means, and helped boost Seattle’s recycling rate to 40 percent. This was not high enough for the council, however, which made the program mandatory in hope of reaching a 60 percent recycling rate.
Recycling is not a panacea for environmental problems. It is instead only one of several means for disposing of waste. Recycling is widely used where the economics are favorable but inappropriate where they are not. Government regulations may override the economics, but only at a high cost and by requiring actions, such as curbside recycling, that people will not do voluntarily.