Recycling for Recycling's Sake: A Waste of Time and Money

Article excerpt

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). …