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Collective wisdom.

After years of coping with poor returns on collected recyclables, many municipal governments are pulling the plug on recycling programs just as commodity markets have heated up.

Many of these cities (such as New York, Cincinnati and Cleveland), have an on-again, off-again flirtation with their residential recycling programs, as elected officials try to absorb information on the costs versus the benefits of recycling.

However, some cities in the U.S. and Canada could not imagine turning away from curbside collection. They would point to high landfill diversion rates and impressive commodity shipping figures to demonstrate the wisdom of their programs.

Such cities have no qualms about bidding out comprehensive collection and processing contracts (or in a few cases, managing the process themselves) and in budgeting ongoing resident education messages to keep participation rates high.

But in many other cities, initial enthusiasm for bringing curbside service to every ZIP code has faded considerably. Even higher commodity prices may not be enough to sway budget-watchers who see considerable collection and processing expenses made for a portion of the waste/recycling stream that only 15 percent or 20 percent of their residents are segregating.

Recycling advocates are faced with the question of how much support should go into curbside programs that--while capturing some renewable resources before they head to a landfill--are burning an inordinate amount of fuel in half-empty collection trucks and taxpayer dollars at the same time.

Recyclers of industrial and commercial streams, who think as business owners first and foremost, would be quick to explain the law of diminishing returns when chasing secondary commodities: Don't expend a lot of energy and time for a quantity of material that doesn't justify the expense.

Some recycling advocates would counter-argue that the justification for comprehensive recycling programs is about more than dollars and cents. But if environmentalism is the reason for this argument, the inefficiency of burning storage tanks full of diesel fuel to collect scattered recyclables must be considered.

Cleveland is considering a return to neighborhood drop-off centers as a compromise. These centers are not devoid of costs, but if managed efficiently they can collect material at a much lower cost to taxpayers.

Just across Lake Erie from Cleveland, Ontario has been putting systems in place to fund recycling programs in what leaders believe will be a sound manner on an ongoing basis.

Whether genuine conclusions can be reached about the economic viability of recycling programs remains debatable, as many companies or institutes that commission studies have pre-ordained conclusions they wish to reach. But for those who can remain objective, the next few years could be an ideal time to collect data and crunch some numbers.
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Title Annotation:Editor's Focus
Author:Taylor, Brian
Publication:Recycling Today
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2004
Previous Article:A true "Trashformation".
Next Article:201 is deep-sixed.

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