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Recycling for recycling's sake: a waste of time and money.

Managing waste is a noble concept, but, considering the lack of markets for recovered materials, it doesn't make for effective environmental policy or good economic sense.

IF THE CENTRAL objective of municipal solid waste management is to protect public health and welfare while effectively dealing with the volumes of solid waste generated by American society, it is fundamental to do so using the most cost-effective means available. Policymakers at all levels of government, however, are dismissing cost-effectiveness considerations by adopting recycling as the only acceptable means for managing municipal solid waste (MSW). Indeed, nearly all recently enacted or proposed MSW legislation promotes recycling as the preferred option for managing trash. Siting new landfills or incinerators is considered unacceptable policy.

By ruling out solid waste management practices capable of handling large volumes of waste in an economical manner--landfilling and incineration--elected officials are increasing the likelihood of a real capacity crunch. For example, if California were to increase its present recycling rate of 12% to 50% overnight, it would deplete its existing landfill capacity in 2008, rather than 1999, as is projected using the current recycling rate.

A 1992 Congressional Research Service study estimates the current national recycling rate to be between 15 and 20% and that 20% of America's waste now is being incinerated. Currently, landfills handle 60-65% of the nation's trash. The proportion of municipal solid waste being managed by recycling, incineration, and landfilling suggests something about the over-all relative cost-effectiveness of these management methods. Nonetheless, all levels of government are pursuing recycling as a panacea for America's garbage woes.

State and Federal policymakers can not be blamed entirely for their bias toward recycling. The direction of governmental policy is dependent, in large measure, on public perception. In the area of solid waste management, misconceptions of the risks associated with disposal methods and the perception that recycling always is an environmentally friendly process hamper the development of cost-effective policy. Rather than face the public's opposition to siting new waste treatment plants, Federal, state, and local officials have jumped on the recycling bandwagon.

Nearly every state is attempting to force the marketplace to increase recycling rates of various "post-consumer" materials. To this end, state and local packaging and product bans flourish, and optimistic recycling mandates are legislated in statehouse after statehouse. Each state has its own interpretation of how to define and reach desired recycling rates. In California, 25% of the waste stream must be diverted from disposal facilities by Jan. 1, 1995, with a five percent increase each year, reaching 50% by Jan. 1, 2000. A maximum of 10% of this diversion may be waste-to-energy.

Illinois requires waste districts to reduce, recycle, and collect at least three different categories of materials and to collect and compost yard waste separately from household trash. To the extent feasible, waste districts' plans must be designed to recycle 15% of the waste stream by 1994 and 25% by 1996.

Some states do not require a fixed percentage reduction in the waste stream as a result of recycling, but, instead, mandate a given percentage of source-separation and collection. Nine states and the District of Columbia have set minimum recycled-content requirements for products and packaging. Of the nine having minimum content laws, one or more of these policies cover telephone directories, trash bags, fiberglass, other paper products, and glass and plastic containers.

Newspaper publishers are the primary targets of state recycled-content requirements in all nine states and D.C., ranging from 7.5 to 50% (eight of the 10 areas' requirements are 40% or greater). In others, voluntary agreements have averted legislation.

Generally, the requirements for use of old newsprint are phased in over a number of years and limited to major publishers. Missouri, for instance, requires that newspapers with daily circulations over 15,000 use newsprint with recycled content of 10% in 1993, increasing by 10% a year through 1996 and then reaching 50% in 2000. Failing to achieve these targets will cost publishers $100 a day in fines.

Carl Landegger, chairman of Black Clawson Company, the largest producer of machinery for paper recycling, commenting on public-sector mandates to recycle old newsprint says, "The economics are a disaster." A 300- to 400-ton-per-day wastepaper recycling plant runs $60,000,000 to build. Plants are replacing perfectly good facilities, rather than adding to newsprint capacity. Depreciation continues for the now-obsolete plant, and the costs of borrowed capital for the new one average $30-50 a ton. Capital expenses, transporting old newsprint, and the operating costs of cleaning wastepaper raise the price of newsprint. Landegger concludes, "The present trend of accepting any program under the emotional code name of recycling is both socially and economically shortsighted and wrong."

Thirty-one states place restrictions on what may be disposed of in a combustor or landfill. Restrictions often are tied to the issuance of a permit for a new facility. In California, new combustors must separate recyclables from the waste they process. It also has placed a five-year moratorium on construction or expansion of combustors. Four other states have placed moratoriums on landfills and incinerators in order to force recycling. Maine has prohibited the construction of any new waste disposal facilities.

Numerous states have banned yard waste and a variety of commercial products--lead-acid batteries, tires, used oil, white goods (refrigerators, washing machines, etc.)--from landfills. Typically, those that prohibit disposal of lead-acid batteries, waste tires, and major appliances have complementary requirements for manufacturers and distributors to take back these products from consumers and dispose of them in a safe manner.

Thirty-seven states have some type of product or packaging restrictions on their books. The most common requirement is a ban on a particular product or type of package. Twenty-two outlaw the common six-pack plastic ring holder if it is not biodegradable. Some regulate the availability of plastic and paper grocery bags. At least 10 have banned packaging containing potentially toxic heavy metals. The level of detail in product and packaging restrictions varies greatly by state. Ten states have mandated deposit / refund systems for beer and soft drink containers. Three of them have expanded their deposit programs to cover other containers.

Recovery is only the first step

State and local requirements for recycling have been partially successful, as recyclables have been pulled out of the waste stream. However, the fundamental problem of creating markets for the deluge of recycled materials generated as a result of state and local recycling legislation remains.

A 1992 Wall Street Journal article reported that many "cities and towns, particularly in the Northeast and Midwest, are buried in old newspapers, green wine and beer bottles, and plastic milk jugs that nobody wants." New York's trash troubles forced Mayor David Dinkins to announce the building of a new landfill and trash incinerator. The City Council's supposed money-saving program aimed at recycling 25% of the city's trash by April, 1994, turned out to be a cash-consuming scheme. It cost the city $300 a ton to collect plastic containers, but secondary materials dealers were willing to pay only $5-10 a ton for the plastic. Worse yet, the city currently is paying $25 a ton to transport accumulated old newspapers to recycling facilities.

Recognizing the current lack of markets for recovered materials, legislators in all 50 states and many major cities have set up purchasing preference programs or some type of set-aside policy for goods with recycled content. Twenty-seven of these policies establish a higher price allowance, usually in the five or 10% range for goods with specified levels of recycled content. State agencies are instructed to purchase items such as office or computer paper that make use of recycled materials. Fifteen states offer investment tax credits, tax-free development bonds, or sales tax exemptions for recycling operations. The idea behind these initiatives is to use economic incentives and the purchasing power of government to help jump-start markets for recycled goods.

Despite the plethora of state and local prescriptions and proscriptions, recycling rates tend to increase at a stubbornly low rate. Even so, mountains of materials continue to pile up at city recycling facilities. The need to create markets has thus become one of the key driving forces behind Federal proposals to regulate municipal solid waste.

The current flurry of legislation establishing over-all recycling goals as high as 50% are not likely to serve the public well. Declaring these lofty rates as goals may be "politically correct," but recycling 50% of the nation's trash may not be achievable, or even desirable.

Harvey Alter, Manager for Research Policy, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, has estimated potential recycling rates using information from Franklin Associates prepared for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and an estimate of recyclable material determined by William Rathje, an archaeologist who directs "The Garbage Project" at the University of Arizona. After adjusting this information for participation rates and yields of usable materials, Alter estimates recycling rates might reach 25%, but only if composted yard waste is included as recycled material. Attaining a goal of 50% recycling by the year 2000 is highly unlikely.

Why, then, do media accounts indicate that 30-40% reductions in solid waste have been achieved in individual cities or states as a result of recycling programs? One explanation is that high recycling figures quoted to the press include items that typically are not a part of the waste stream going to landfills--salvage of autos and major appliances, or reclaiming construction and demolition debris.

New Jersey, for example, claims a 48% recycling rate. Scrap metal, auto scrap, and white goods contribute 16% of the tons recycled, while asphalt and concrete construction debris accounts for another 23% and yard wastes amount to 17%, but these items are not part of the MSW stream. A more representative MSW recycling figure for the state would be around 29%.

Even that figure is suspect. Municipalities receive state grants based on the recycling tonnage they are able to document, providing a strong incentive to over-report. Furthermore, the reported amounts total only 4,800,000 metric tons (MMT), whereas the state presumes another 2.5 MMT is recycled, but not reported. If this "fudge factor" is removed from the recycling total, the over-all rate is 32%. If adjusted to exclude items not normally in the MSW stream, New Jersey's recycling rate is a more modest 20%.

Sen. Max Baucus (D.-Mont.), who led the 1992 legislative charge for Resource and Recovery Act (RCRA) reauthorization, echoed a widely held sentiment when he stated, "We are overwhelming ourselves with garbage and we are running out of safe and secure places in which to place it." This type of unsubstantiated rhetoric helps perpetuate the public's crisis mentality. A 1989 study points out the naivete of this claim. An environmental survey of less than half of New York State identified geologically acceptable landfill sites totaling 200 square miles. This is an area that represents less than 0.4% of the state's land. If a series of hypothetical landfills were constructed on these sites and filled to a depth of 100 feet, New York's MSW needs could be met for the next 180 years, even if no recycling or incineration were to take place.

Nevertheless, America could be in danger of running out of landfills. The EPA projected in 1988 that 50% of the permitted landfills in the U.S. would close in five to six years and 80% within the next 20 years. Since, by design, most landfills remain open only 10-20 years, the problem facing MSW managers is the reduced rate of siting new ones. Fortunately for those dealing with the problem, those that are being sited tend to be much larger than their predecessors because of the economies of scale involved in placing and constructing environmentally sound facilities.

Any type of waste treatment facility, even when made environmentally safe, is difficult to make desirable to the surrounding community. Landfills, composting centers, and incinerators lower neighboring property values and cause affected citizens to oppose the facility being placed nearby. The resultant "not-in-my-backyard" syndrome is the true impediment to siting, not lack of technological expertise or suitable geological sites.

For the most part, landfills and combustors suffer from a poor public image, fostered by past practices. Old-style landfills often were open dumps located in some of the worst possible sites from a hydrological point of view. These often were abandoned quarries or ravines susceptible to surface-water runoff or to chemicals leaching into the groundwater. About 70% of municipal incinerators in the mid 1970s had inadequate air- and water-pollution controls.

Modern landfilis and incinerators have little in common with their environmentally suspect predecessors. A state-of-the-art landfill includes a system to collect and process leachate--the liquid product of moisture seeping into the site combined with organic and inorganic chemical components from refuse stored there--and a method to collect and vent (or burn) methane gas generated by organic decomposition. Modern sites also have a single-or double-composite liner or one of clay to prevent leaching. Indeed, the EPA strengthened Federal standards for landfills in 1991, requiring nearly all facilities to install these safeguards.

Regulations promulgated by the EPA in 1991, in accordance with the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments, force modern incineration facilities to control emissions to meet stringent air quality standards. In terms of air emissions, most modern waste-to-energy plants--incinerators that use garbage as fuel to generate electricity--operate more cleanly than coal-fired facilities.

While no method of MSW management is risk-free, modern landfills and incinerators certainly are low-risk. According to the EPA, the estimated aggregate risk from existing landfills is one case of cancer every 13 years. Waste-to-energy facilities projected to become operational in 1993 that are equipped with dry scrubbers and fabric filter control devices are estimated to pose a one-in-a-million cancer risk.

Regardless of the negligible health risks posed by landfills and waste-to-energy plants, political risks associated with these facilities are substantial. A 1990 public opinion survey conducted for the National Solid Wastes Management Association indicated that 59% of those surveyed would oppose building new landfills in their communities, while 38% would not object. Waste-to-energy plants fared a good deal better, with 37% indicating that they would object to such a facility in their community, while 55% would not.

Policymakers should be concerned with the potential adverse environmental and economic consequences society will face if landfill and waste-to-energy capacity does not keep pace with America's trash disposal needs. Making unpopular decisions today could head off tougher choices 10 to 20 years from now.

Recycling requires resources

It seems the public has accepted the notion that recycling is environmentally benign, even though it is a manufacturing process like any other: raw materials must be collected, prepared for processing, and manufactured into marketable materials. Recycling is a resource-consuming activity--requiring energy, water, and, often, chemical resources--and, of course, it produces some pollution.

For instance, waste paper--including reprocessed newsprint, corrugated containers, or office paper--is subjected to very similar processing techniques, as is virgin pulp. Curbside pick-up, local drop-off, or office diversion programs are the main means of collection. Once gathered, materials must be sorted and transported, usually by truck or train, to a mill. There, the waste paper is prepared by mixing it with water and mechanically beating the mixture, separating fibers from foreign materials. A fiber-and-water slurry is formed and then filtered to remove plastics and other foreign materials.

Depending on the needed quality of the final product, various de-inking processes are necessary. Although technologies employing heat, chemicals, detergents, or solvents may be used, the most common method of de-inking is to aerate the mixture, forcing ink to migrate to the surface as a foam. This process produces a toxic sludge that must be treated.

Further refining or blending with virgin material may be necessary. Also, a bleaching process often is employed using chlorine gas, sodium hypochlorite, hydrogen peroxide, or other chemicals. Once these preliminary stages are complete, the fibers can be used to form paper.

The main difference between this process and making paper from virgin materials is in the stock-preparation stage. Rather than breaking down waste paper, the manufacturer of virgin paper grinds logs or wood chips into fine fibers. These fibers then-need to be softened before the cleaning and other preparation stages.

Potentially, everything is recyclable, but not necessarily "economically" so. While recycling may conserve some resources, the process of turning recovered materials into marketable products consumes or utilizes other resources such as energy, water, human labor, and physical capital, and produces wastes that must be treated.

To determine whether recycling a particular material is a net gain or loss to society (i.e., economically efficient or not), there is no better measure than the one offered by market prices for these resources. In a market economy like America's, resources will be allocated to their most valuable use as a result of the price placed on them by the "invisible hand" of the marketplace.

Aluminum, for instance, enjoys a high recycling rate--about 32% according to 1988 EPA data--because collecting and reprocessing is more cost-effective than mining and processing bauxite. (Aluminum beverage containers are recycled at an even higher rate-55% or more.) Paper and paperboard are recycled at approximately a 26% rate, while corrugated boxes are recovered at 45%.

In general, the most cost-effective method of disposal or re-use conserves the most valuable resources. Prices can not be relied upon if one form of MSW management creates environmental "externalities"--ecological expenses not reflected in the management method's costs. As a result of ubiquitous Federal environmental regulations, however, landfilling, incineration, and recycling largely "internalize" environmental costs in America.

Hence, if it runs less to recycle post-consumer discards than to place them in a landfill, recycling is preferable to landfilling. The corollary also should hold true. If the cost of recycling is greater than landfilling or incineration, the discarded material should be managed at an environmentally safe disposal facility.

Rather than blindly swear allegiance to recycling, accepting market prices as a measure of the value of potentially recyclable materials provides the best means to determine the most economical and environmentally sound method of managing waste. Ignoring these market signals will waste other valuable resources.

The public sector, specifically the Federal government, lacks the expertise to create markets for recycled goods. Developing markets for used materials by means of legislative mandates ultimately means governmental management of the inputs to manufacturing of products and packaging. The failure of central planning in the now-defunct communist system should warn lawmakers against this approach. Yet, this was the remedy favored in the recycling provisions of the RCRA reauthorization bills that Congress failed to pass in 1992.

If policy action is needed, it should be taken on the lowest level of government qualified to do so. Local authorities have been managing municipal solid waste adequately for more than a century. As EPA Administrator William Reilly concluded in testimony before a Senate subcommittee in 1991, "We must not nationalize the garbage problem."

The Federal government's role should be limited to information dissemination and providing environmental guidance--developing an information clearinghouse for solutions to MSW problems and providing technological guidelines for facilities. The EPA already is filling this role in accordance with the Pollution Prevention Act of 1990 and existing RCRA law.

In 1989, the EPA's Municipal Solid Waste Task Force published its final report, 7he Solid Waste Dilemma: An Agenda for Action. The Task Force emphasized an "integrated management hierarchy" based on all four basic ways to reduce or manage MSW: source reduction--recycling or reusing materials be ore they reach the waste stream; recycling; incineration; and landfilling. The report stressed that all four elements should be integrated into a system designated "to emphasize certain management practices, consistent with the community's demography and waste stream characteristics. . . In an integrated waste management system, each component is designated so it complements, rather than competes with, the other components in the system."

Simply put, a properly designed integrated approach to MSW management recognizes that cities such as Salt Lake City, Utah, and Trenton, N.J., differ geologically and demographically and thus may require very different policies to manage their solid wastes. The economics of recycling vs. landfilling for, these two communities is dramatic. The nearest economically viable reprocessing facility for plastics or newspapers is many hundreds of miles from Salt Lake City, but its favorable conditions for landfilling are reflected in a tipping fee of about $4 a ton. The opposite is true of Trenton, where reprocessing facilities are close at hand and landfill tipping fees exceed $100 a ton.

Much legislative foolishness can be foregone if policymakers will take a systematic look at all methods of managing waste. Recycling should be viewed as one of several options in an integrated waste management system. Moreover, all waste management methods should be evaluated on cost-effectiveness as well as public health and environmental grounds. Taking a secular view of recycling would help turn attention to the problem of providing adequate solid waste management capacity. Requiring recycling for recycling's sake is not good economic or environmental policy.

The authors are, respectively, deputy director and an environmental intern, Center for the Study of American Business, Washington University, St. Louis, Mo.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Society for the Advancement of Education
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Chilton, Kenneth; Lis, James
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Date:May 1, 1993
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