Forced Recycling Costs Consumers

By Schaumburg, Grant W.; Doyle, Katherine T. | Consumers' Research Magazine, April 1994 | Go to article overview
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Forced Recycling Costs Consumers

Schaumburg, Grant W., Doyle, Katherine T., Consumers' Research Magazine

A growing number of states and cities are enacting recycling laws to encourage or mandate recycling, and the Clinton Administration promises to do the same at the federal level.

The goal of recycling legislation is to conserve scarce resources - land, energy, labor, and so on - and to prevent waste from damaging people and the environment. Mandatory recycling laws, however, tend to squander valuable resources, and nowhere is this more clear than in New Jersey, the state many credit with having the most aggressive recycling program in the nation.

The New Jersey recycling law - the Mandatory Recycling Act - calls for statewide source separation and recycling of solid waste with the goal of recycling a minimum of 25% of the total municipal solid waste stream. Each of the state's 21 counties is given some flexibility in its applications of state mandates. Nine counties require municipalities to collect and market recyclables independently, six offer to market materials collected by the municipalities, and six coordinate both the collection and the marketing of recycled materials. All counties newsprint. Some have also mandated the recycling of plastic beverage containers, all plastic containers, tin food containers, corrugated cardboard, grass clippings, junk mail, or magazines. The commercial sector is required by all counties to recycle office paper and corrugated cardboard as well as the materials designated for household recycling.

Recycling Caused By the Law. In table 1 the state's data from 1980 and 1990 are used to estimate the amount of recycling that has occurred as a result of the Mandatory Recycling Act. The first column gives 1980 and 1990 waste generation in each of the major household recycling categories. The second column gives the 1980 and 1990 recycling tonnage estimates, and the third column shows the 1980 and 1990 recycling percentages (column 2 as a percentage of column 1).


Since the 1980 amounts were recycled before enactment of the New Jersey recycling law, we assumed that the percentage recycled in 1980 was recycled without the added costs and incentives of the legislation. Thus, the difference between the 1980 and the 1990 recycling percentages can arguably, although not necessarily, be attributed to the recycling legislation. We then calculated the recycling potentially attributable to the legislation as follows: the fourth column equals the difference in the 1990 and the 1980 recycling percentage times the waste generated in 1990.

The table focuses on the primary municipal solid waste categories targeted by the Mandatory Recycling Act; recycling attributable to the law totals 497,000 tons per year, an amount that represents less than 4% of the total New Jersey municipal solid waste stream.

Benefits and Costs. To increase recycling by approximately 497,000 tons per year, New Jersey instituted an extravagant system of taxes and subsidies and created a costly and intrusive bureaucracy. Half a million tons is a lot of waste, but to put it in perspective, a landfill measuring a half mile on each side would accommodate 497,000 tons per year for ten years.

Advocates of recycling usually focus on the amount of recycling wastes and the land savings without considering the complete recycling picture. In evaluating mandatory recycling, one cannot simply total the resources the program "conserves" without recognizing that it consumes other resources; it takes labor, capital, and energy to manage, collect, sort, sell, ship, process, remanufacture, and market recyclables.

The primary economic effects of the increased recycling are summarized as benefits in the form of savings on collection and disposal (e.g., reduced landfill use) and the value of recycled materials; and as costs in the form of separation, collection, processing, and production, and program administration, public relations, and related items.

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