Changes over Time in the Decision to Adopt Curbside Recycling

By Mrozek, Janusz R. | Atlantic Economic Journal, June 2000 | Go to article overview

Changes over Time in the Decision to Adopt Curbside Recycling


Mrozek, Janusz R., Atlantic Economic Journal


JANUSZ R. MROZEK [*]

This study uses observations on California cities to estimate a model of the municipal decision to adopt curbside recycling. The model is estimated separately for two time periods: before and after a state waste-diversion mandate was imposed (that is, early and later adoption). It finds that citizen preferences matter greatly in early adoption decisions, but does not matter at all after the mandate was imposed. Landfill disposal opportunity costs, operating costs, and competitive disposal outlets are not significant in explaining early or later adoption. This study uses county-level data to confirm the results of the municipal-level analysis. (JEL Q28)

Introduction

In the last decade, municipalities have been adopting curbside recycling programs at a prodigious rate. In California, for example, 145 curbside programs were operating at the end of 1989. One year later, 108 more municipalities had started curbside programs, and by the end of 1993, some 350 more municipalities had set up such programs. This paper seeks to identify the determinants of the adoption decision and how they have changed over time.

Possible explanations for curbside program adoptions include landfill opportunity costs, mandates from higher levels of government, citizen preferences for recycling, and transfers of rents to special interests. In the last decade, municipalities have begun to face increasing opportunity costs of landfill capacity. Barriers to the construction of new facilities have grown as local opposition has mushroomed, due to increasingly widespread perceptions of externalities. Construction costs have risen as the federal government has mandated stricter facility standards, including double liners and leachate collection systems. Facility siting problems have led to increases in transportation costs as wastes travel greater distances.

These increased costs have caused local decision makers to explore alternatives for waste disposal. One such alternative is to separately collect some of the wastes and sell them as recycled materials. Citizens can deliver these materials to drop-off centers or collection services can pick up recyclables at curbside. The high opportunity costs of landfill capacity may cause local decision makers to perceive curbside pickup as worthwhile, even though costs of waste collection increase significantly, because of the potential for waste diversion from landfills.

Mandates from higher levels of government for increased recycling rates have also motivated municipalities to adopt recycling programs. In the past decade, a number of states have passed laws specifying recycling or landfill diversion targets. Curbside recycling, drop-off recycling centers, and incinerators are the primary alternatives to meet the mandates.

Yet another explanation is that municipalities are responding to citizen demand for curbside services to satisfy their preference for recycling. Citizens gain utility from recycling because they altruistically perceive that benefits will follow to society as a whole. Some citizens want to recycle but do not have convenient (inexpensive) access to a recycling outlet. Other citizens recycle materials already at private recycling centers but want the government to provide a service that lowers their private recycling costs.

Finally, municipalities respond to demands from other special interests. Local waste material businesses will be eager to receive recycled goods (although curbside service adoption by many municipalities increases supply of materials, driving down prices and profits for all recycling businesses). Other local businesses may desire residential recycling programs so they themselves can avoid being compelled to recycle.

This study uses observations on California cities to estimate a model of the municipal decision to adopt curbside recycling. The model is estimated for two separate time periods. …

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