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Do the Benefits of Recycling Outweigh the Costs?

Some Argue Recycling Uses More Energy than It Saves

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Dear EarthTalk: Some people argue that recycling uses more energy than it saves, and thus it is not worth the effort. Is this true?Tigger Fox, Millinocket, Maine

Controversy over the benefits of recycling bubbled up in 1996 when columnist John Tierney posited in a New York Times Magazine article that “recycling is garbage.”

“Mandatory recycling programs,” he wrote, “…offer mainly short-term benefits to a few groups -- politicians, public relations consultants, environmental organizations and waste handling corporations -- while diverting money from genuine social and environmental problems. Recycling may be the most wasteful activity in modern America…”

Cost of Recycling vs. Trash Collection
Environmental groups were quick to dispute Tierney on the benefits of recycling, especially on assertions that recycling was doubling energy consumption and pollution while costing taxpayers more money than disposing of plain old garbage.

The Natural Resources Defense Council and Environmental Defense, two of the nation’s most influential environmental organizations, each issued reports detailing the benefits of recycling and showing how municipal recycling programs reduce pollution and the use of virgin resources while decreasing the sheer amount of garbage and the need for landfill space -- all for less, not more, than the cost of regular garbage pick-up and disposal.

Michael Shapiro, director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Solid Waste, also weighed in on the benefits of recycling:

“A well-run curbside recycling program can cost anywhere from $50 to more than $150 per ton…trash collection and disposal programs, on the other hand, cost anywhere from $70 to more than $200 per ton. This demonstrates that, while there’s still room for improvements, recycling can be cost-effective.”

But in 2002, New York City, an early municipal recycling pioneer, found that its much-lauded recycling program was losing money, so it eliminated glass and plastic recycling. According to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the benefits of recycling plastic and glass were outweighed by the price -- recycling cost twice as much as disposal. Meanwhile, low demand for the materials meant that much of it was ending up in landfills anyway, despite best intentions.

Other major cities watched closely to see how New York was faring with its scaled back program (the city never discontinued paper recycling), ready to perhaps jump on the bandwagon.

But in the meantime, New York City closed its last landfill, and private out-of-state landfills raised prices due to the increased workload of hauling away and disposing of New York’s trash.

As a result, the benefits of recycling glass and plastic increased and glass and plastic recycling became economically viable for the city again. New York reinstated the recycling program accordingly, with a more efficient system and with more reputable service providers than it had used previously.

Benefits of Recycling Increase as Cities Gain Experience
According to Chicago Reader columnist Cecil Adams, the lessons learned by New York are applicable everywhere.

“Some early curbside recycling programs…waste resources due to bureaucratic overhead and duplicate trash pickups (for garbage and then again for recyclables). But the situation has improved as cities have gained experience.”

Adams also says that, if managed correctly, recycling programs should cost cities (and taxpayers) less than garbage disposal for any given equivalent amount of material.

Even though the benefits of recycling over disposal are manifold, individuals should keep in mind that it better serves the environment to “reduce and reuse” before recycling even becomes an option.

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EarthTalk is a regular feature of E/The Environmental Magazine. Selected EarthTalk columns are reprinted on About Environmental Issues by permission of the editors of E.

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