Why Recycle?

It feels good to do it. But recycling doesn't always save money or protect the environment.

Florida passed the Solid Waste Management Act in 1988, requiring counties with more than 50,000 residents to recycle 30 percent of their waste by 1995. In addition, the law requires that counties recycle 50 percent of the so-called "minimum five materials" -- newspaper, glass, plastic, aluminum, and steel.

As of the deadline, Dade and 22 of Florida's 36 participating counties had reached the overall 30 percent goal. None had gotten anywhere near the mark for the minimum five materials, yet none has been fined or otherwise punished by the state.

If the Mobro 4000 and the perceived landfill shortage had been the only causes of the recycling revolution, public enthusiasm might have been more subdued. But recycling was also the most visible manifestation of a new environmental religion whose holy texts include Charles Reich's The Greening of America (1970), Dennis and Donella Meadows's The Limits to Growth (1972), and E.F. Schumacher's Small Is Beautiful (1973). These best sellers forecast impending global doom brought on by population overload and rapacious consumerism, and each implicitly or explicitly prescribed recycling as one of several solutions. For many, household recycling has become a way to celebrate one's communion with the larger environmental movement, or at least to atone for one's complicity in what Time magazine in 1955 first called "the throwaway society." At its extreme, household-garbage sorting is a sacred rite and helps explain why, just as it was getting started, there were those who said Dade County's ambitious recycling program didn't go far enough.

"Mount Trashmore is not in trouble, we are," a reader named Bridget Figueroa wrote to the Miami Herald in December 1990. "Dade County does not need more room for garbage. It needs all of us to recycle completely, not partially, as now. We must make compost to build our soil, and demand less packaging from stores and manufacturers. We must stop using foam cups and request that fruit and meat be stored and packed in nonplastic trays."

Other readers also responded to a litany of columns and editorials in the Herald, such as one titled "Recycle, Recycle, Recycle," which urged cities to "get behind this worthwhile project quickly. Delay only postpones the inevitable." Another letter to the editor suggested instituting an emergency plan requiring business, industry, and condominium associations to recycle. (As of 1994, Dade had added 38 percent of all apartment houses and condos, and 41 percent of commercial establishments, to its program. Until recently it was the only county in the state that compelled businesses to recycle.)

Edmund F. Benson, who as chairman of the Dade County Recycling Task Force had led private citizens in their quest to help county officials design the recycling program, responded to a Herald article called "Troubles Mount for the Dump": "Each of us is to blame for the mess that we're making. It's time to make waste prevention an obsession and to treat Earth as if we planned to stay."

On the eve of the contract award for the recycling program, the Herald's editorial board wrote that "the county would earn money by selling recycled materials. Taxpayers would save by delaying the cost of constructing new landfills. The environmental benefits are also great." It added: "The program makes a lot of sense and the Commission should approve it. Granted, it's a small inconvenience to separate refuse.... But the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks."

If recyclable materials are valuable, why should you have to pay someone $2.16 every month to haul them away? Someone should be paying you, right? Why will Dade County have to spend a projected $10.5 million this year -- approximately $5.00 for every man, woman, and child in the county -- to make recycling work?

The reason is that recyclable materials aren't very valuable, and it costs a lot to gather them up. Curbside recycling programs generate revenues, but they almost never turn a profit. Recycling not only doesn't pay for itself, it rarely makes economic sense compared to alternative means of getting rid of the things we see fit to throw away.

There are exceptions, of course. Seattle spends one-tenth of one percent less money to recycle garbage than to dump it. In the Florida Keys, where geography and land-use regulation result in landfill charges (or "tipping fees") of $163 per ton -- three and a half times the state average -- recycling saves money. Recycling makes sense in some places at some times, and it also makes more or less sense for certain materials.

"Glass is worth next to nothing," says an executive at one corporate recycling giant, who refused to be named for fear of offending the glass companies he does business with. "In fact, in Florida you end up paying to get rid of almost all of it. That's just the beginning of the problem. Most of the glass gets broken somewhere along the line, in the bins or in the trucks or in the separation equipment. Then it contaminates everything else. It gets mixed in with aluminum, with paper, with plastic -- it drives the end-user nuts and lowers the price of other recyclables. I wish glass would go away. It belongs in landfills, where it takes up very little space and poses no environmental danger, because it's inert."

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