Municipal Recycling Performance: A Public Sector Environmental Success Story

Article excerpt

In the field of solid waste management, the 1990s are most aptly described as the decade of recycling. The remarkable growth in the national recycling rate from 9 percent in 1989 to 28 percent in 1996 indicates robust popular support and suggests that this form of civic environmentalism has entered the mainstream of behavioral norms in America (Goldstein, 1997). That so many Americans have changed their waste disposal practices is evidence that recycling may well be the singular environmental success story of the decade. During this era, the business of recycling also evolved from the periodic paper drives by scout troops and volunteers into a challenging, complex, and expensive service that now competes with other local programs for scarce resources.

Contemporary recycling managers contend with budget-busting swings in material prices, variable levels of state financial support, and growing competition for local resources engendered by federal and state devolution efforts. In addition, perennial critics challenge the economic prudence and environmental benefits of recycling. Their core charge is that traditional methods of solid waste disposal are less expensive and that communities should recycle only when it "pays for itself" through the revenue generated from materials sales (Alexander, 1993; Boerner and Chilton, 1994; Tierney 1996).

Faced with these challenges, local managers realize it is imprudent to coast toward the millennium on the hope that the popularity of recycling alone will be sufficient to sustain future funding requirements for this service. As Ackerman (1997) warns, "it is important to keep trying to improve the bottom-line results of recycling programs." Sustaining and expanding popular support for recycling in the future depends on making this service as convenient as possible and on educating citizens about the true costs of traditional disposal methods compared to a full accounting of the costs and benefits of recycling.

This article examines municipal recycling performance over time and identifies the factors that distinguish the higher performing programs. Change in recycling performance between 1989 and 1996 is measured by differences in the rate of recycling participation, the percent of the local solid waste stream diverted from disposal by recycling, and the inflation-adjusted cost of the recycling program. The analysis focuses on the costs of recycling and the factors that help to explain change in these costs over time. Finally, recycling costs are compared with the costs of solid waste collection and disposal. The premise of this research is that local officials can make more informed judgments about how to improve the performance of their recycling programs if they know how other communities have achieved success.

A decade ago, recycling was new to many jurisdictions. Faced with rising tipping fees, shrinking landfill space, and the politically unpopular prospect of siting either new landfills or incinerators, hundreds of cities launched recycling programs at the urging of their staff, elected officials, residents, or state governments. Cities devised an amazing variety of recycling programs and began to learn what worked best in their communities to divert a larger proportion of their waste streams. Some early recycling research helped to identify the factors that affected recycling participation and waste stream diversion success (Folz, 1991 a, 1991 b; Folz and Hazlett, 1991; West, Feiock, and Lee, 1992; Feiock and West, 1993; Khator and Huffman, 1993; Miranda, Everett, Blume, and Roy, 1994; Apotheker, 1993; Guerra, 1992; U.S. EPA, 1994). To date, however, no analysis has explained the extent to which particular program changes account for the variation in recycling success over time. One thing is abundantly clear: recycling is not cheap. Recycling critics correctly assert that material revenues rarely cover program costs. This panel study indicates that cities are now at a point where they need to justify the growing costs of their recycling programs. …