Too Good To Throw Away
Recycling's Proven Record
The Costs of Recycling
Historically, municipal sanitation departments had an important yet fairly straightforward task: picking up mixed garbage from one place and dumping it in another. As Americans learned of the serious environmental problems posed by the disposal of certain materials -- batteries, metals, yard wastes, chlorine-saturated plastics and paper, tires, hazardous household chemicals, paints, drugs, household radioactive waste, cleaning fluids, waste oil, etc. -- into landfills, open dumps, and uncontrolled incinerators, recycling began to proliferate, and seemingly overnight the management of garbage became more complicated. As entrepreneurs as well as environmentalists demanded that valuable, useful, or dangerous materials in the waste stream be separated for reprocessing and marketing, the logic of municipal waste collection shifted and capital and operating budgets and administrative procedures relating to sanitation programs were modified. Antirecycling interests invariably present these budgetary and financial adjustments in the most negative light, despite the reality that any type of solid waste management program -- whether it's landfilling, incineration, or recycling -- costs money.
The Truth about Subsidies
Obviously, the production and management of municipal wastes occurs in a larger economic context. While the concept of a free market resonates with an appeal akin to motherhood and apple pie, our economy is and always will be directed by regulated incentives and subsidies. Nevertheless, antirecycling advocates focus their concern about government expenditures and regulation exclusively on programs that assist recycling. As John Tierney put it in the New York Times Magazine:
[A] wide variety of tax breaks and subsidies, have pushed the national rate of recycling up to...25 percent -- an expensive achievement, since the programs lose money.
The Facts Actually, most government programs "lose money" -- not only traditional garbage-collection programs, public schools, and police and fire departments, but also NASA, the military, and highway construction, to name just a few. While some recycling programs lose money under adverse market conditions, dumping at a landfill or an incinerator always "loses money." Compared with traditional garbage collection, expenditures on recycling efforts are invariably smaller and offer the potential to generate their own revenue stream, even if they do not always break even. As Michael Shapiro, the EPA's director of the Office of Solid Waste, observed recently:
We do not believe that recycling is always nor need be exorbitantly costly. Several recent studies demonstrate that recycling can be a cost-effective technique for managing municipal solid waste. For example,...a well-run curbside recycling program can cost anywhere from $50 to more than $150 per ton of materials collected. Typical 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...Current experience shows that well-run community recycling programs can be cost-competitive with disposal options...What's important to remember is that costs vary widely by location and program design. Some cities have more efficiently operated programs than others.
Whatever subsidies exist for recycling efforts pale in comparison with, for example, the hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies provided to virgin-resource processors over the past century and which continue to this day. The virgin-based forest products, mining, and energy industries have all been -- and remain -- beneficiaries of both direct and indirect subsidies and tax breaks. Some examples of these tax breaks and subsidies include percentage-depletion allowances, which are intended to promote resource exploration, below-cost timber sales from federal lands, U.S. Forest Service research donated to industry, write-offs for timber management and reforestation costs, and below-cost mining leases based on an 1872 law. And these subsidies do not include the many exemptions from environmental laws that the virgin-resources industries enjoy, allowing them to externalize costly burdens to the environment. Collectively, these tax breaks and subsidies, which first began in 1891, have for decades averaged several billion dollars per year and have helped finance the development of a U.S. manufacturing sector that relies overwhelmingly on virgin materials to the detriment of recycling. Commenting on just one year's worth of subsidies (1988) an EPA study concluded:
[W]e can be quite confident that the overwhelming bias of federal tax policies and program outlays favors extractive [virgin] industries and their beneficiaries over recycled markets...[F]ederal subsidies of virgin paper production undoubtedly cost the taxpayer hundreds of millions of dollars and may reduce the incentives slightly to switch from virgin to recycled paper production.
Though one year's worth of subsidies creates a "slight" incentive for manufacturers to use virgin resources instead of recycled materials, the effect of decades worth of subsidies -- more than a century's worth in the case of paper -- is a much greater market distortion. In regard to such subsidies, Al Gore has observed:
In the case of the paper industry, for instance, taxpayers currently subsidize the manufacture of paper made from virgin timber, both as the largest single purchaser and by further subsidizing the construction of roads into national forests. In addition, the federal government pays the entire cost of managing the forest system, including many activities that exclusively benefit the timber industry. All of these policies encourage further destruction of a critical natural resource.
Federal tax subsidies and other subsidy programs affecting the virgin timber, mineral, and energy industries averaged $3.5 billion to $6.3 billion through the early 1980s and $1.3 billion to $4 billion annually since that time. Globally, the Worldwatch Institute estimates that government subsidies that hurt the environment total $500 billion annually.
Obviously, the few and comparatively meager subsidies that the recycled-materials infrastructure receives represent a fair effort to level the competitive playing field, though to do so meaningfully will take decades. In fact, many plastics recyclers are finding it too difficult to compete with the billions of dollars in subsidies doled out to the energy industry (virgin plastics are made from oil, coal, and natural gas) that imposes a downward distortion on virgin resin prices. For example, the Plastic Recycling Alliance recycling plant in Chicago will close on February 1, 1997 "because it is cheaper to buy [subsidized] virgin resin than to recycle and use post-consumer" plastic. Commenting on the retreat by the plastics industry in general from earlier commitments to promote and invest in recycling, the president of the American Plastics Council said recently, "One problem [plaguing plastics recycling] is the low prices for [subsidized] virgin resin."
New York City's Special Situation
In "Recycling Is Garbage," John Tierney singled out New York City's recycling program for special opprobrium. However, managing the nation's largest municipal solid waste collection program in one of the world's most demographically diverse cities is nothing if not complicated. Simply educating New Yorkers about the collection schedule for the city's recycling program requires brochures to be printed in eight languages. Nor was it made any easier when five of the city's six unlined landfills were closed between 1979 and 1992 because they were routinely contaminating the air, surrounding waterways, and adjacent groundwater supplies. (These five closed landfills are all on New York State's list of hazardous waste sites.) Moreover, only one of New York City's five boroughs is attached to the United States mainland, and, unlike the garbage collection system in any other city in the world, most of New York's daily burden of municipal waste is moved by barge.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, as New York City was gradually losing five of its six landfills, city managers came up with a $3 billion scheme to build five of the largest garbage incinerators in the world, one for each borough in New York City. Back then, modern incineration technology was in its infancy and the public officials proposing to develop the incinerators had little understanding of how to control the wide range of conventional and hazardous air pollutants municipal combustors are known to generate. When New York City's mayor at the time, Edward I. Koch, proposed to build the incinerators, neither federal nor state regulations existed to effectively control incinerator air emissions or manage its contaminated ash, and few workers with experience in controlling such a diverse range of pollutants were to be found anywhere. Nor did the city have a clue about how to dispose of the thousands of tons of contaminated ash these combustors were going to generate. With New York City still out of compliance with the Clean Air Act and just recovering from its late-1970s fiscal crisis (school programs and day care centers were closing and firefighters and police were being threatened with layoffs), it didn't require a genius to recognize that a $3 billion program to burn 20,000 tons of garbage a day would not pass muster with most New Yorkers. It didn't. None of the incinerators were ever built.
By contrast, few public policies have generated as much enthusiasm and prompt political support as did the effort to begin recycling in New York City. Recycling offered so much: it would reduce the amount of waste that needed to be landfilled at Fresh Kills or shipped to landfills out of the city or state, it would eliminate the need to build costly, polluting incinerators, and it would help spur new economic activity. Indeed, although a few public officials had to be dragged kicking and screaming -- and through the courts -- to acknowledge the benefits of the program, in just a few years New York City's recycling program was among the largest in the world and was working out its hitches and making progress -- slowly, but making progress nonetheless.
Ignoring the city's history of failed landfills and disastrous incineration schemes, antirecycling interests argue recycling in New York City still is not worth it. To quote John Tierney:
Every time a Sanitation Department crew picks up a load of bottles and cans from the curb, New York City loses money. The recycling program consumes resources...For every ton of glass, plastic and metal that the truck delivers to a private recycler, the city currently spends $200 more than it would spend to bury the material in a landfill.
The Facts Every time the city picks up nonrecyclable garbage, the city loses money too. Trucks traveling New York City's streets to collect recyclables and trucks collecting garbage both consume resources. And if enough trucks travel the streets to pick up recyclables, there will be a reduction in the amount of trucks needed to pick up garbage. Ironically, the greatest benefits in reducing truck impacts from recycling occur in the most ambitious programs. Studies have confirmed that in those programs with recycling-collection rates higher than 20 percent, some of the trucks that circulate to collect garbage can be taken off the streets entirely.
It is certainly not hard to claim that recycling is more expensive than landfilling in New York City, since it is perhaps the only city in the United States that benefits from the absence of a tipping fee (the fee paid to deposit waste) at its landfill. However, the private waste haulers in New York City, which service commercial establishments, have not had the benefit of being able to rely on subsidized landfilling and for decades have been recycling high percentages of the materials they collect. For example, in contrast to New York City's Department of Sanitation (DOS), which recovers only 18 percent of all the wastepaper generated in its service territory, the private-sector waste haulers now recover and profitably market 89 percent of all the wastepaper discarded in their service territory.
There are numerous opportunities to reduce the costs of recycling programs, but because New York City's government-run program suffers from inconsistent and meager financial support, high labor costs, and poor economic integration on the one hand, and from more efficient private sector competition on the other, the city seems unable to justify making the needed investments to improve the program's efficiency. For example, New York City's DOS has no recycling-processing infrastructure and has to contract out to the private sector for this essential, high-profit service. Moreover, the city must go through middlemen to market the materials its own trucks collect. It thus loses the competitive cost-reducing, personnel-sharing advantages realized by businesses that not only collect but also process and market recyclables. As one industry journal recently reported, "There is 100-percent [cost] interdependence between collection, processing, and marketing. Collection often is the most expensive component of the recycling program," and yet collection is essentially the only component New York City's DOS carries out. This is one of the most costly ways to proceed.
There are a number of approaches New York City might take to reduce the per-ton cost of its recycling program, and virtually all of them would require that the city commit to a broader program to collect more materials, more frequently, than it does currently. Nevertheless, current administrative and logistical inefficiencies associated with New York City's government-run recycling and waste collection program do not undermine the environmental value and strategic economic benefits of using recycling to reduce the city's reliance on a landfill that is legally required to close in 2001. Unlike the marketing of recyclables, most of which usually have a positive market value -- recovered materials are activating local entrepreneurial energies and international investments -- getting rid of mixed garbage will always cost the city money. For example, the cost of tipping waste at a landfill in the Northeast (not including collection, processing, and transport) averages more than $73 a ton. If collection, processing, and transport costs were included, that landfilling cost would almost double. If New York City exported its waste to landfills in the Mid-Atlantic region, the tipping fee would average $46 a ton, and if collection, processing, and transport costs were included, that rate would more than double. Even if New York City shipped its waste to the region with the least costly landfill fee (southern/central United States), it would still cost the city more than $20 a ton to dump its waste there, and this does not include the cost of collection, processing, and transport, which would add almost $60 a ton to the cost. But even this lower landfilling price is almost twice the amount opponents of recycling find unbearable for the city to pay for marketing wastepaper during market downturns.
Ironically, it was the New York Times that recently reported on the high cost of future garbage export and the folly of cutting back on recycling in New York City:
By the most conservative estimates, exporting garbage will cost the city an additional $150 million a year.
At the same time, New York City will have to start paying the huge bill for closing Fresh Kills down. Total estimated price: $800 million...Mr. Giuliani, who last summer defended his decision to cut $28 million from the city's recycling budget as fiscally prudent, now defends as no big deal his decision to spend many times that amount to ship out New York's garbage.
Recycled-Paper Mills in New York City
Besides reducing the vehicle miles traveled to bring newsprint to local publishers who now buy substantially from mills in Quebec and Maine, the two recycled-paper mills now being developed in New York City will provide a convenient local market for all of the city's recovered paper, the single largest material category in its waste stream. These mills will also benefit local publishers by providing a more competitive supply of otherwise high-priced newsprint. As mentioned earlier, following the publication of "Recycling Is Garbage," New York City mayor Rudolph Guiliani announced his decision to ignore the city's widely supported local recycling law, cutting back on collection frequency and delaying the collection program for residential mixed scrap paper. The Mayor also chose to reduce collection of all recyclables to once every two weeks rather than once a week. These decisions were especially untimely, given that the two paper recycling plants are under development with total investments exceeding $750 million and thousands of construction and permanent new manufacturing jobs at stake. Once these plants are constructed, New York City will henceforth be paid for its wastepaper. The Bronx Community Paper Company (also known as N.Y.C. Paper Mill, Inc.) expects to pay the city an average of $40 a ton for its wastepaper, and assumes it will receive approximately 150,000 tons per year from the city, 105,000 tons of which will be usable by the mill; the remainder will be sold to other recycling mills. For the portion of wastepaper to be used by the Bronx mill, New York City is projected to receive approximately $4.2 million annually, plus a percentage of the revenue from the sale of the wastepaper not used by the mill. This financial benefit would have to be added to the savings associated with not sending these mixed-paper resources to a landfill. The Visy paper mill project on Staten Island is contracted to pay the city at least $10 per ton of wastepaper and will use a similar amount as the Bronx mill, so it will also generate millions in annual revenue to the city.
Landfills: Not So Cheap after All
Opponents of recycling claim that shipping wastes to a landfill is economical. But as of 1995, the costs for landfilling wastes in the United States -- not including collection, processing, and transport -- varied by more than 300 percent, depending on the region and the technology employed at the facility. To officials in charge of municipal waste management programs, it is a well-known fact that the cost of any integrated municipal solid waste management program, especially those as extensive and complicated as the ones serving many of America's largest cities, is always variable. Among the reasons for this: landfill tipping fees vary widely, capital and operating budgets change annually, waste collection and hauling services are highly competitive and prices for them change often, and the value of recovered materials also fluctuates. Thus, it is impossible to claim, as the antirecycling interests do, that relying on a landfill is -- and always will be -- the cheapest waste management option.
It is complicated to establish financial accounting equivalents for the dissimilar costs and benefits recycling and landfilling engender. Despite claims that recycling is not cost-competitive when compared with landfilling, in fact no full life-cycle-cost accounting protocol that conforms with generally acceptable accounting principles has been established that convincingly monetizes and compares these dissimilar costs and benefits. Sometimes advantages accrue at the local level that benefit recycling; sometimes the revenue from recycling is less cost-competitive. As the EPA has recently observed, none of this undermines the larger strategic value of recycling:
Full Cost Accounting (FCA) helps decision makers...by providing complete cost information, including direct and indirect costs as well as past and future expenses. Instead of looking at all of these costs, some solid waste managers have simply counted the costs associated with collecting and processing recyclables when comparing recycling to alternative methods of waste management. It's no wonder that anti-recyclers can argue that curbside recycling doesn't pay. This equation leaves out the revenues from selling secondary materials and reductions in landfilling or incineration costs...However, current FCA systems do not take into account broader environmental, health and social costs. While these costs cannot be easily measured or readily valued, they are important and we must begin to quantify them so that we can demonstrate that recycling is not garbage. We can start by reframing the discussion from an emphasis on the local costs of collection and landfill tipping fees to an examination of all of the costs and benefits of waste management policies, on a national and even global basis.
In fact, tipping fees at landfills have been increasing at more than twice the rate of inflation every year since 1986 in virtually every region of the United States (overall they increased by 300 percent since that time), and they are expected to continue to rise 7 percent per year (more than double the projected rate of inflation) for the foreseeable future. At the same time that tipping fees at landfills have been increasing dramatically, the rate of recycling has almost tripled. Without waste disposal pressure being relieved by an almost 24 percent recycling rate, which diverts about 42 million tons of municipal waste from landfills and incinerators annually, the inflationary climb of landfill tipping fees would be even steeper.
Community Economic Development: Recycling Versus Landfills
With their perspective on environmental policies principally driven by economic arguments, it is not surprising that the antirecycling voices offer economic development and jobs production as a consequent benefit of landfill-dependent solid waste management strategies. Glorifying a landfill development in Charles City County, Virginia, the Reason Foundation observed:
In exchange for a host benefit fee of at least $1.1 million per year, Charles City County, Virginia, accepted a regional landfill. Thanks to the landfill, the county cut property taxes by 20 percent, even though spending on schools went up.
John Tierney, who lifted the Reason Foundation's reference to the Charles City County landfill to the pages of the New York Times Magazine stated:
The landfill's private operator...pays Charles City County fees totaling $3 million a year -- as much as the county takes in from all its property taxes. The landfill has created jobs....[P]oliticians in other states [who] have threatened to stop the importing of New York's garbage would only be depriving their own constituents of jobs and tax revenue.
The Facts Far from strengthening local economies and producing jobs, landfills actually produce very few jobs, the least of any waste management option, and a review by the EPA of the socioeconomic impact of landfills concludes they hurt established local economies. Also, the jobs produced by landfills involve exposure to many workplace and environmental hazards. By contrast, recycling has proven to be the greatest jobs producer of any waste management option, and many of the most prosperous communities in the United States have the best organized recycling programs.
According to the EPA, landfills reduce the value of property around them:
Various [adverse] welfare effects may be associated with [landfills]...Studies indicate that unpleasant odors can discourage capital investment and lower the socioeconomic status of an area. [Landfill] odors have been shown to interfere with daily activities, discourage facility use, tax revenues and payrolls...[In addition to adverse health effects] the associated property damage [caused by landfill gases, fires, and explosions] is a welfare effect. Furthermore, when the migration of methane and the ensuing hazard are identified, adjacent property values can be adversely affected.
Mention the community's recycling program to a prospective home buyer and the response is likely to be an appreciative nod. Mention that the community hosts a regional landfill and the prospective buyer is likely to look elsewhere.
The utopian vision of simple, cheap, and environmentally safe landfills helping to finance schools and libraries is an exceptionally rare phenomenon and logically inconsistent. It is precisely because of the documented adverse environmental, economic, and public health threats caused by landfills that so few communities want them. It is for these reasons that developers of landfills have had to pay for community benefits such as schools and computers to those very few and very poor (and often minority) communities forced to consider landfilling as an economic-development option.
For-profit or government-run recycling facilities produce more jobs than for-profit or government-run landfills. As business ventures, both types of facilities are profitable, so why not promote the process that produces more jobs and helps reduce pollution at manufacturing plants? For example, the Charles City County, Virginia, landfill cited by the Reason Foundation, and later in "Recycling Is Garbage," employs approximately 55 people and is designed to manage approximately 6,000 tons of waste per day, or one job for every 34,000 tons of waste managed annually. (Predictably, the Charles City landfill is in a poor community that is 62 percent minority.) When paper, plastics, metals, and other materials are deposited at that landfill, they become unavailable for productive use more or less forever.
By contrast, New York City's Bronx Community Paper Company, a recycled newsprint mill that was initiated by NRDC and a local community group, will produce 600 permanent jobs for a recycling project (including wastepaper processing) that will remanufacture almost 900 tons of wastepaper a day into newsprint, or one job for every 459 tons of waste managed annually. And far from desecrating a rural greenway, as the developers of the Charles City County landfill did, this mill will clean up and bring economic activity and jobs back to an industrial site abandoned for a quarter of a century. Similarly, the Visy paper recycling mill under construction in New York City in Staten Island, which will also redevelop an abandoned industrial site and process approximately 900 tons per day of wastepaper, anticipates 200 full-time jobs, or one job for every 1,375 tons of waste handled each year. Thus, the two recycling mills under development in New York City could produce anywhere between twenty-four and seventy-four times more jobs per ton of waste handled than would shipping the same amount of material to the Charles City County landfill or any other landfill. And rather than being located at landfills far removed from New York City, the jobs produced by recycling manufacturing plants there are local, so the city will realize economic multiplier benefits in the form of tax revenue, raised family income, and ancillary business activity. According to analysts at the New York City Economic Development Corporation, these latter multiplier benefits will add millions of dollars in additional benefits to the city's economy. (None of the job estimates include construction jobs. More construction jobs are produced in developing a manufacturing plant for recycling than are produced when land is excavated to develop a landfill. In New York City more than 4,000 construction jobs for two years will be necessary to build the recycled paper mills.) Nor is New York City's situation unique. Studies prepared in dozens of states have confirmed that recycling is a better stimulator of jobs and economic development than is landfilling and incineration. For example, one recent study prepared by the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission found that "Recycling added about 18.5 billion in value to the economies of 12 Southern states and Puerto Rico in 1995."
Fundamental to the economic debate about how much recycling makes sense is the question of how to pay for waste disposal. Preserving taxpayer subsidies for municipal waste disposal -- including the use of pay-as-you-throw programs -- and assuring that industrial interests bear no financial or logistical responsibility for managing wastes is certainly among the most important objectives of the antirecycling forces. Here, in another echo of a previously published report by the Reason Foundation that wound up as new reporting in the New York Times Magazine, is how John Tierney sees it:
Recycling costs money...Your trash is...your private property. You should be responsible for getting rid of it. You should have to pay to get rid of it -- and you should pay whatever price it takes to insure that your garbage doesn't cause environmental problems for anyone else...In a purely market-driven situation, people would still recycle according to what makes sense in their area. Environmentalists...spend much of their energy crusading for government recycling programs and regulations...Once people switch to this pay-as-you-throw system, they throw away less.
The Facts It is true that pay-as-you-throw programs, which charge consumers a per-bag fee for garbage disposal, are indeed valuable tools in the fight to manage waste effectively. In fact, environmental advocates were in the forefront of advancing pay-as-you-throw systems to support recycling, and now more than 2,800 communities throughout the United States have employed this approach. But these programs do not do away with the need for curbside collection of recyclables. Nor do they reflect a "purely market-driven situation." With few exceptions, wherever you find pay-as-you-throw, you also find curbside collection and separation requirements. And, in fact, it is when variable-rate programs are combined with frequent curbside collection and drop-off programs that the highest recycling recovery rates are achieved. But unfortunately, pay-as-you-throw programs cannot be adopted universally. In certain circumstances logistical impediments interfere. For example, in New York City, pay-as-you-throw programs were reviewed by analysts in the Department of Sanitation under three different commissioners, and each time these programs were found to be "not feasible for implementation in the City at this time."
Manufacturers' Responsibility for Packaging
At the heart of the U.S. municipal waste problem is the fact that the consumer-products industry passes off to local governments -- externalizes, in the language of economists -- the economic and environmental consequences of the waste its products create. Pay-as-you-throw programs, first advocated by environmental proponents of recycling, can be useful. But these programs only indirectly, and weakly, send the right cost and price signals to manufacturers, who determine what will and what won't wind up as municipal solid waste. Reducing the tax burden associated with the disposal of municipal solid waste will be possible only when responsibility for its recovery and use is assigned to the manufacturers themselves -- that is, when municipal waste management costs become internal to the cost and pricing of consumer goods. This is exactly how all other wastes generated in the United States are treated. Of all the solid wastes generated in this country -- mining waste, agricultural waste, oil and gas waste, food-processing residues, demolition debris, hazardous waste, incinerator ash, cement-kiln dust, medical waste, and everything else -- only municipal waste is managed at taxpayers' expense.
If anyone believes that manufacturers bearing the costs of managing and recycling our solid waste sounds far-fetched, consider this: it is already law in Germany, Sweden, and the Netherlands, and has been supported by the United States Conference of Mayors and local officials throughout the United States, including sanitation commissioners under New York City mayors Edward I. Koch and Rudolph Giuliani.
One of recycling's ancillary benefits, though a direct threat to the image conscious consumer-products industry, is the hard look it has instigated at how the products we buy are made, not merely how they are disposed. In large part this has resulted from environmentalists putting pressure on manufacturers in the mid-1980s to "design for recycling." As Al Gore has written, "products manufactured and packaged for the mass marketplace often have features that frustrate recycling efforts" Opportunities for recycling and other sound waste management practices are undermined by industrial designers who concoct consumer goods that are virtually impossible to recycle (paper wrapped in plastics, plastics saturated with metals, multiple plastic resins that cannot be separated, etc.) or that cause hazardous waste by-products when recycled (cadmium-coated auto bumpers, batteries with mercury and lead, heavy metal inks on printed material, lead wrappers on wine bottles, etc.). Source reduction, eco-labelling, life-cycle assessments, and other informative environmental tools for consumers had their birth in the popular demand that wastes be recyclable and recycled. However, as with any environmental initiative, certain industries feel threatened by new approaches aimed at informing consumers of whether virgin or recycled raw materials are used or how the product might be disposed. (Thus it comes as no surprise to learn of recent lobbying efforts by the American Plastics Council and the American Forest and Paper Association that would have resulted in giving the World Trade Organization [WTO] power to eliminate or greatly restrict eco-labelling initiatives that would inform consumers about, for example, a product's recycled content or energy efficiency data. According to one recent report on the matter: "Some industries fear they will lose out to more responsible competitors if eco-labels tell consumers how their products are actually made." After environmentalists raised a storm of protest, the industry initiative attacking eco-labels was withdrawn, at least temporarily.)
As the above suggests, it is erroneous to say that "the simplest, and often best measure of a product's environmental impact [is] its price," as John Tierney did in the New York Times Magazine, once again reiterating previously written -- but inaccurate -- statements such as these from the Reason Foundation:
Fortunately, environmentally conscious consumers have a much more reliable guide -- market prices. For most products, market prices already reflect the cost of valuable resources used in their production, as well as the cost of controlling air and water pollution and making efficient use of energy.
Few statements could be further from the truth. It actually might be more accurate to argue that few of a product's environmental impacts are fully factored into its selling price. What about raw materials extraction in less developed countries where no regulation exists, much less an accurate pricing of environmental burdens? How are these impacts factored into the price of consumer products? How does the environmental cost of acquiring these raw materials get factored into the price of consumer goods sold in the United States? How is habitat destruction of resident species priced? How are irrigation subsidies accounted for? Are the documented adverse environmental impacts of these subsidies factored into the price of a product? What about mining waste, oil and gas waste, agricultural waste, food processing residues, and so many other types of waste that are exempt from federal regulations? How have the destruction of wetlands been priced? What about the hundreds of pollutants that are exempt from regulation even in those industries that are regulated? How is municipal waste disposal, passed off to taxpayers, factored into the price of a product? How does the price of a product incorporate below-cost timber sales? What about land giveaways to mining companies? What about the hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies and tax breaks doled out to virgin-resource based industries? Clearly, it is wrongheaded to suggest that the simplest, and often best, measure of a product's environmental impact its price.
If manufacturers were responsible for the cost of garbage, they would have an incentive to reduce the amount of garbage they built into their products. They might also design products to last longer. As long as consumers pay or noncompetitive government agencies use tax dollars to finance the disposal and recycling of garbage, consumer-products companies can continue to market products in elaborate, excessive, and nonrecyclable packages and not worry about the consequences. The cost of managing municipal wastes and of recycling must become part of the cost of doing business.
Those who argue against recycling do so for a variety of reasons. Operators of landfills and incinerators are understandably concerned that almost 25 percent of their potential market is now going somewhere else and that expanded recycling will lead to increasing financial losses. Other antirecycling interests have their own, industry-specific concerns. One of the most wide-ranging debates related to the economics of recycling involves a program in ten U.S. states and many European countries that provides citizens with an incentive to return used containers by making them deposit-refundable. Bottlers and retail grocery chains have aggressively fought such programs, in large part because they require the store to accept the containers and arrange for their rerouting to a recycling market. Here again, the cost of this "government mandate" gives ammunition to the antirecycling forces. According to John Tierney:
A 5 cent bottle deposit program typically spends $500 for every ton of cans and bottles collected, which makes curbside recycling look like a bargain. States without mandatory deposits...have proven that the most efficient way to reduce litter is to hire cleanup crews.
The Facts States without container-deposit laws do not have more efficient litter-reduction programs than do bottle-bill states. No state without a bottle bill has achieved container-recovery levels as high as bottle-bill states. This is true for container-deposit programs operating in other industrialized countries as well. The Congressional Research Service noted that "the most widely documented successes [for container recovery] have come from mandatory deposit/refund requirements." The ten bottle-bill states alone account for the collection of 60 percent of all the plastic containers recovered in the United States. Container-deposit programs not only reduce litter and divert waste from landfills, they also direct the collected containers to economically productive manufacturing plants at little cost to government. Litter reduction by clean up crews is not recycling. Ried Lifset, the co-director of Yale University's graduate program in solid waste policy, maintains that "bottle bills appropriately shift the cost of recycling beverage containers from government and taxpayers to consumers and manufacturers."
Contrary to claims made by opponents of container-deposit programs, no study has ever accurately assessed the total economic (and social) cost associated with bottle bills. For example, according to a 1995 study performed for the EPA that investigated previous attempts to estimate the costs and benefits of bottle bills:
A consistent and discouraging finding was that the available data and published studies are almost entirely incomplete and/or out of date. The most widely cited study of redemption costs is based on data from 1985, when many state bottle bills were new and redemption technology was in its infancy. The crucial and controversial area of litter reduction benefits has received almost no systematic study. [N]ew primary research is badly needed, but could not be done for this report due to time and budget constraints.
Although the report to the EPA confirms that the cost of bottle bills is hard to estimate, it did discuss the environmental benefits produced by recycling the materials collected by bottle-bill programs: "Elevated recycling rates due to bottle bills reduce many types of air and water pollution, including greenhouse gas emissions...Greenhouse gas reductions from bottle bills could amount to 1.74 million metric tons of carbon nationwide."
What is puzzling about the antirecycling position on container-deposit programs is not the estimate of the amount of money exchanged at various stages in the recovery of containers in bottle-bill states, which can indeed be high. (Many profitable, jobs-producing businesses exist to service container-deposit programs.) Rather, the antirecycling attack on bottle-bill programs, ostensibly motivated by a concern about costs, is combined with an attack on government curbside collection programs for recyclables. Doing away with both store-deposit and curbside collection programs, as "Recycling Is Garbage" suggests, leaves a sole option: "to hire cleanup crews." (For many states the "cleanup crews" referred to in the Times Magazine are made up of prison laborers, which helps explain their relative cost effectiveness.) But "price dictates everything" cannot be the only approach to social policy. Surely there is a value in the litter reduction benefits bottle bills have produced. Sidewalks and roadsides strewn with litter are not the hallmarks of a well-run society.
136. Tierney, at p. 27.
137. "Sustainability and Recycling: A New Vision for the Future."
138. Federal Disincentives: A Study of Federal Tax Subsidies and Other Programs Affecting Virgin Industries and Recycling (Washington, D.C.: EPA, August 1994), at p. 5.
139. Same as above, at p. iii.
140. Earth in the Balance, Al Gore (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1992), at p. 198.
141. Same as above, and Paying the Piper: Subsidies, Politics and the Environment, David Malin Roodman (Washington, D.C.: Worldwatch Institute, 1996), at p.6.
142. See, for example, Union Carbide to Close HDPE Recycling Plant, in Plastics News, July 22, 1996, at p. 1.
143. Plastic Recycling Alliance to Close Doors, Plastic News, December 2, 1996, at p. 3.
144. Plastics Recycling: Time for Last Rites?, Plastics News, September 30, 1996, at p. 1.
145. English, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Greek, French, Polish, and Russian.
146. The New York Environment Book, at p. 10.
147. Tierney, at p. 29.
148. See "Debunking the Two Fleet Myth," Waste Age, October 1995.
149. NYC regulations divide the collection of waste between its Department of Sanitation, for private residences and not-for-profit organizations, and private haulers, which collect from commercial establishments.
150. Comprehensive Solid Waste Management Plan: Final Update and Plan Modification, City of New York, Department of Sanitation, Feb. 15, 1996. Derived from data supplied at p. 3-11 and Tables 5-1 and 5-6.
151. Office Wastepaper Supply in the New York Metropolitan Area, Jaakko Poyry Consulting (prepared for The Bronx Community Paper Company, Sept. 1994).
152. "Lowering Collection Costs, Improving Rates in Curbside Recycling Programs," in Waste Age's Recycling Times, Oct. 1, 1996, at p. 3.
153. See, for examples, Nationwide Diversion Rate Study: Quantitative Effects of Program Choices on Recycling and Green Waste Diversion, Lisa A. Skumatz, Ph.D., Skumatz Economic Research Associates, July 1996; and "Small Weights, Big Difference," in Resource Recycling Vol. XV, No. 10, October 1996, at p. 20 and passim.
154. NSWMA 1996, at p. 6.
155. Resource, a division of WMX Technologies, Anthony Lomangino, President, Brooklyn, per. com. July 19, 1996.
156. Same as above.
157. New York Times, January 6, 1997, at p.B1.
158. Unfortunately, studies indicate that this is exactly opposite the policy needed to reduce per ton costs: numerous studies have confirmed that more frequent collection generates more materials and thus lowers per ton costs. See for example, Nationwide Diversion Rate Study: Quantitative Effects of Program Choices on Recycling and Green Waste Diversion, Lisa A. Skumatz, Ph.D., Skumatz Economic Research Associates, July 1996.
159. Bruce Pulver, Chief Financial Advisor, Bronx Community Paper Company, New York, per. com. July 7, 1996.
160. Same as above.
161. "Sustainability and Recycling: A New Vision for the Future." Emphasis added.
162. NSWMA 1996, at pp. 5, 6.
163. Same as above.
164. Environmental Myths, at p. 37.
165. Tierney, at pp. 28 and 51.
166. 40 CFR Parts 51, 52 and 60, Docket No. A-88-09, Item Nos. 11-I-6, 11-I-7, etc.
167. Mr. Jack Miniclier, Director of Public Works, Charles City County, Va., per. com. July 17, 1996.
168. Mr. Jack Miniclier, Director of Public Works, Charles City County, Va., per. com. July 22, 1996.
169. Bronx Community Paper Company in the Harlem River Yard, Final Environmental Impact Statement.
170. Eric Deutch, Senior Project Manager, New York City Economic Development Corporation, per. com. July 17, 1996.
171. Eric Deutch, Senior Project Manager, New York City Economic Development Corporation, per. com., June 1996.
172. Economic Benefits of Recycling in the Southern States, prepared by Roy F. Weston, Inc., for the Southern States Energy Board (Norcross, Ga., Sept. 1996) cited in the Daily Environment Report: State News, Sept. 10, 1996. The report covered economic activity associated with recycling in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, N. Carolina, Puerto Rico, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia. Emphasis added.
173. Tierney, at pp. 44, 48 and 49.
174. Nationwide Diversion Rate Study: Quantitative Effects of Program Choices on Recycling and Green Waste Diversion.
175. Comprehensive Solid Waste Management Plan: Final Update and Plan Modification, at pp. 2-7.
176. Earth in The Balance, Al Gore, at p. 158.
177. "Plan to Scrap Eco-Labels Stopped," Ecological Economics Bulletin, Volume 1, Number 4, October 1996, at p. 13.
178. Tierney, at p. 48.
179. Environmental Myths, at p. 39.
180. Tierney, at p. 44.
181. Congressional Research Service Report for Congress: Recycling and Reducing Packaging Waste: How The United States Compares to Other Countries, at p. 15.
182. PET Recycling Supply/Demand Analysis, Wellman Inc., 1994.
183. Reid Lifset, written communication to Allen Hershkowitz, July 25, 1996.
184. Preliminary Analysis: The Costs and Benefits of Bottle Bills, (draft report) Frank Ackerman, Dmitri Cavander et. al. Tellus Institute for the U.S. EPA, Office of Solid Waste, January 1995, at p.1.
185. Same as above, at p. 2.
186. Tierney, at p. 44.
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