Salvation or Dross? Recycling Revisited

Published: 
Friday, August 1, 1997

Editor’s Note: In the New York Times Magazine, John Tierney presented recycling as merely a “rite of atonement for the sin of excess.” His article spurred an 86-page response by the Natural Resources Defense Council, selections of which are printed here. What follows is Clark Wiseman's less apocalyptic view.

No reasonable person would disagree with the Natural Resources Defense Council’s position that recycling is desirable. Recycling has been carried out on a massive scale throughout human history, and undoubtedly dates from prehistoric times, when implements and animal skins were first modified and converted from one use to another. Hence, in a broad sense, recycling indeed has a "proven record."

The real issue is the appropriate level of recycling. The NRDC report refers to “a small but vocal chorus of antienvironmental interests” who “have tried to cast doubt on the value of recycling.” This “chorus” is actually composed of those who favor the most efficient level of recycling. In contrast, the NRDC appears to believe that we should recycle as much as possible.

The NRDC report as a whole suffers from its fundamentally anecdotal, emotive approach to a topic that deserves a more detached and analytical assessment. Much of the report is devoted to a broadside condemnation of any and all use of virgin materials. To refute these claims would require a report as long as NRDC's 86 pages.

Instead, I will address the main issue, the costs of recycling. All economic costs are due to resource use -- ultimately the use of human resources (time, effort, skills and knowledge) and natural resources. When we say that one management option is more costly than another we are saying that it uses more resources than the other. Recycling is supposed to "save" resources, but when the full range of resources is considered, it may instead waste resources. John Tierney's article on recycling concluded that it does.

If many of the 7,000 curbside collection programs now being operated or subsidized by local municipalities are more costly than the major alternative, landfilling, then we must conclude that this level of recycling is excessive.

The NDRC report fails to provide any relevant and meaningful evidence to show that recycling costs the same as or less than landfilling. It cites the recent increasing costs of landfilling as a justification for more recycling, but fails to note the cause of the increase. The higher environmental standards that landfills must meet, not a shortage of landfill capacity, are pushing up costs. Landfill capacity has actually increased, as the report concedes.

The net cost of a recycling program is the cost of the program minus whatever is earned from selling recyclables. If recycling saves resources, this net cost will be less than the cost of the landfilling that has been avoided. But this is not typically the case.

To illustrate with a real-world example (and not New York, which the NRDC considers a “special situation”), consider a study of recycling in the state of Washington. A study prepared for Clean Washington Center, a division of Washington’s Department of Community, Trade, and Economic Development, reported that per-ton recycling costs were less than disposal costs for each of four Washington programs: Seattle, Spokane, Vancouver, and Bellingham.

Even if one accepts the study’s cost figures at face value, the study made a fundamental and common mistake. It assumed that recycling results in lower disposal collection costs. However, recycling does not avoid disposal collection costs. It adds them. Trucks must still make the same number of stops and cover the same routes – but this time it is additional trucks. No one (not even the NRDC) things that recycling will completely replace landfilling. Collection costs are fixed costs, and they are the largest component of disposal costs – historically about two-thirds of the total waste management bill.

The study compared the cost of recycling a ton of material with the cost of disposing of it in a landfill, but failed to acknowledge that recycling means additional collection by additional trucks. When this is recognized, the conclusion is reversed. In every case studied by the Clean Washington Center, including Seattle’s highly vaunted program, the net recycling cost exceeds the avoided disposal cost by between $15 and $90 per ton.

Furthermore, these figures assume that all municipal recycling represents a diversion of material that would have gone into landfills. Yet some material would have been recycled anyway – the convenience of curbside pickup simply diverts it from private recycling to municipal recycling. Thus, the study overstates the amount of recycling actually achieved.

And if we add the value of household time used in municipal recycling, landfilling beats recycling hands down. Eight minutes a week of household time spent on recycling activities adds, at $ 10 per hour, a staggering $400 or more per ton to the full economic cost of recycling. This in itself is about three times the total cost of landfilling.

Now, some may argue that depriving people of small portions of leisure time is virtually costless. But human      behavior suggests otherwise. Commuters crowd and rush to avoid waiting a few minutes for a subway train. Automobile drivers risk speeding tickets to arrive a little sooner, and they often express great dismay when traffic lights turn red at the last moment.

In addition to distorting the cost of recycling, the NRDC report vastly overstates the problems of landfills. The report dwells on the horrors of antiquated landfills, presenting them as current practice. It does not mention the modem ones that comply with the current stringent landfill regulations.

It also suggests that we are running out of landfill space. But let us suppose that all the municipal trash produced in the United States in one year were put into one landfill to a depth of 100 yards (which is less than the depth of the Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island). All this trash would require a pit two-thirds of a square mile on each side. If we were to collect one thousand years’ trash in the same place, we would need an area 30 miles square. If there is a waste disposal problem, it does not relate to the gross space requirements of landfilling.

Furthermore, NRDC’s emphasis on landfill closures is disingenuous. The great majority of landfills are small and designed for only about ten years of operation, so that about half of them close in every five-year period. The relevant consideration is new landfill capacity, rather than the number. One reason capacity is increasing is that most new landfills are large.

Nor does recycling of wastepaper necessarily save trees. The notion that recycling is protecting stately old trees is erroneous; large trees are more valuable for lumber or plywood than for paper production. Increased recycling will result in the conversion of some plantation forests to other uses, just as a reduction in the demand for bread will reduce the number of wheat fields. So it is likely that increased recycling will lead to a net reduction in the nation's forest inventory.

In sum, the NRDC doesn't have much of a case when it pushes for ever more recycling. Its lack of objectivity may even undermine its credibility with all but the most unquestioning of recycling enthusiasts.

Dr. Wiseman is Associate Professor of Economics at Gonzaga University. This essay includes portions adapted from his article “Government and Recycling: Are We Promoting Waste?” in the Cato Journal, Vol. 12, No. 2 (Fall 1992), 443-60.

For the other side of the "Salvation or Dross?" debate, read Allen Hershkowitz's "Recycling's Record."

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Clark Wiseman was an Associate Professor of Economics at Gonzaga University. His research focused on recycling and waste disposal. His work includes “Government and Recycling: Are We Promoting Waste.”
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