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Why Is Recycling Not Mandatory in All U.S. Cities?

Economics, ample landfill space, and low health risks keep recycling optional

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Dear EarthTalk: I can’t understand why it is not mandatory to recycle in the U.S. In my home we recycle 80 percent and toss 20 percent and I am trying to improve those percentages. What needs to happen to make recycling the law of the land? -- Vicki, Geneva, NY

Mandatory recycling is a hard sell in the United States, where the economy runs largely along free market lines and landfilling waste remains inexpensive and efficient. When the research firm Franklin Associates examined the issue a decade ago, it found that the value of the materials recovered from curbside recycling was far less than the extra costs of collection, transportation, sorting and processing incurred by municipalities.

Recycling Often Costs More Than Sending Waste to Landfills
Plain and simple, recycling still costs more than landfilling in most locales. This fact, coupled with the revelation that the so-called “landfill crisis” of the mid-1990s may have been overblown—most of our landfills still have considerable capacity and do not pose health hazards to surrounding communities—means that recycling has not caught on the way some environmentalists were hoping it would.

Education, Logistics and Marketing Strategies Can Lower Recycling Costs
However, many cities have found ways to recycle economically. They have cut costs by scaling back the frequency of curbside pickups and automating sorting and processing. They’ve also found larger, more lucrative markets for the recyclables, such as developing countries eager to reuse our cast-off items. Increased efforts by green groups to educate the public about the benefits of recycling have also helped. Today, dozens of U.S. cities are diverting upwards of 30 percent of their solid waste streams to recycling.

Recycling is Mandatory in Some U.S. Cities
While recycling remains an option for most Americans, a few cities, such as Pittsburgh, San Diego and Seattle, have made recycling mandatory. Seattle passed its mandatory recycling law in 2006 as a way to counter declining recycling rates there. Recyclables are now prohibited from both residential and business garbage. Businesses must sort for recycling all paper, cardboard and yard waste. Households must recycle all basic recyclables, such as paper, cardboard, aluminum, glass and plastic.

Mandatory Recycling Customers Fined or Denied Service for Non-Compliance
Businesses with garbage containers “contaminated” with more than 10 recyclables are issued warnings and eventually fines if they don’t comply. Household garbage cans with recyclables in them are simply not collected until the recyclables are removed to the recycling bin. Meanwhile, a handful of other cities, including Gainesville, Florida and Honolulu, Hawaii, require businesses to recycle, but not yet residences.

New York City: A Case Study for Recycling
In perhaps the most famous case of a city putting recycling to the economic test, New York, a national leader on recycling, decided to stop its least cost-effective recycling programs (plastic and glass) in 2002. But rising landfill costs ate up the $39 million savings expected.

As a result, the city reinstated plastic and glass recycling and committed to a 20-year contract with the country’s largest private recycling firm, Hugo Neu Corporation, which built a state-of-the art facility along South Brooklyn’s waterfront. There, automation has streamlined the sorting process, and its easy access to rail and barges has cut both the environmental and transportation costs previously incurred by using trucks. The new deal and new facility have made recycling much more efficient for the city and its residents, proving once and for all that responsibly run recycling programs can actually save money, landfill space and the environment.

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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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