Is Recycling Worth It?

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As if the recession hasn’t dug its claws into enough budgets and bottom lines, here’s another victim to add to its fiscal hit list: recycling programs.

According to the most recent data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), more than 200 curbside recycling programs got the ax between 2002 and 2008.

In 2008, the market for many recycled materials also dropped severely; recycled tin took a particularly deep plunge from $327 per ton to $5 per ton. Prices have recovered in past couple years, though not to pre-recession highs.

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But not everyone would interpret recycling downturns as bad news.

Although it’s the go-to green habit in many homes, recycling has attracted its fair share of critics along the way.

 

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New York Times columnist John Tierney came out swinging against recycling in the early days with his now-famous 1996 New York Times Magazine article “Recycling Is Garbage.” In it, Tierney dismantled the claim many environmentalists were making at the time that recycling was necessary due to dwindling landfill space.

Almost 15 years later, it turns out that Tierney was right about landfills. An often-cited statistic estimates that the next 1,000 years worth of trash would only fill a landfill 35 miles on each side that's 100 yards deep.

And yet Americans continue to recycle — a lot. EPA data show that Americans tossed out 250 million tons of trash and recycled and composted 83 million tons, which works out to a 33.2 percent recycling rate.

By the EPA’s calculations, that’s a carbon emissions savings equivalent to taking 33 million cars off the road.

At the same time, recycling doesn’t come for free. It costs millions to pickup, sort and process all those plastic bottles, aluminum cans and cardboard pizza boxes we discard. While lifecycle assessments of recycled goods underscore the environmental benefits of recycling, the economic returns aren’t as clear cut.

“Solid waste is a service, and any service that’s provided has a cost,” said Mitch Kessler, president of Kessler Consulting in Florida, which helps state and local governments establish recycling programs. “Just like with lawn services and pool services … when someone comes to pick up your garbage or yard waste or recyclables, it has a cost.”

That cost is highly unpredictable, however, and pricing can shift on a county-by-county basis since various recycling programs incur different expenses.

For starters, the price per ton of picking up and transporting recyclables – referred to as hauling and tipping fees — could range from around $20 per ton to more than $70 per ton.

When you factor in the cost of recycling containers, crews, frequency and set-out requirements (whether resident have to separate different types of recyclable materials or toss them together in a single-stream system), the expenses continue to rise.

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“For residential recycling services, the average cost is about $2 per household,” Kessler said.

Governments can recover some of the cost of recycling programs by selling off recyclable materials for reuse. Today, the residential mix of recyclable materials a homeowner would put out on the curb is worth about $125 per ton, Kessler says. If that price outweighs the collecting, sorting and marketing costs, the recycling program can pay for itself.

But since the cost of recycling – and solid waste collection in general — is so location-dependent, there is no one-size-fits-all recycling methodology that will ensure each curbside program is fiscally sound.

As someone who has studied successful recycling programs with high landfill diversion rates and manageable costs, Kessler offers an optimistic final assessment.

“If you accept that all garbage is local … when the (recyclables) market is where it is today, a well-designed program should be offset by the revenue,” Kessler said.

Harold Cook/Getty Images

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