Why Recycle?

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

Aluminum, on the other hand, has always been a moneymaker. If you're very lucky, someone might pay you 25 cents per ton for mixed, broken glass in the current market. But there are any number of buyers that will pay up to twice that amount per pound for aluminum. Making aluminum from raw bauxite ore is a complicated, expensive process, but remanufacturing it from discarded cans is comparatively cheap and easy. That is why scavengers and other private entrepreneurs in Dade County were already recycling 65 percent of aluminum cans before the advent of mandatory recycling. (In 1990, after awarding the county recycling contract, commissioners bowed to the wishes of their new corporate garbage partner and made it a crime for citizens to scavenge cans by foot or bicycle.)

Prices for recyclables are famously volatile. In the months leading up to the inauguration of Dade's mandatory recycling program, used-newsprint prices throughout the Southeast dropped steadily from $30 per ton to $10 per ton, owing to a glut of newsprint created by other recycling programs already in effect. In the Northeast, cities that had been earning $40 per ton for old newspapers found themselves having to pay $40 per ton to have them hauled away.

Last year the price for newsprint shot above $100 per ton. Some people saw the temporary price spike as a sure sign that recycling's glory days had at last arrived. Hallandale, in Broward County, restarted the newspaper recycling program it had dropped in 1993, and the City of Miami rushed to begin selling the recyclable materials it had sometimes in the past simply incinerated. During the first five years of its recycling effort, Dade County didn't earn a dime from the sale of recyclable materials. (In fact it lost a grand total of $38,624 -- money it was contractually required to pay BFI to compensate for the company's revenue shortfalls.) In 1995, by contrast, BFI cleaned up. As provided by the contract, the county took a 25 percent cut of the proceeds -- a whopping $1.25 million.

But the market, led by newsprint, plunged. Today Waste News, an industry trade publication, lists the price of Miami newsprint at a high of zero and a low of minus five dollars per ton. In other words, it's momentarily hard for recyclers to give newspaper away to paper mills. Prices for other recyclables have also fallen. The portion of sales revenues from recyclables pocketed by Dade County dropped to $127,641 in the first quarter of fiscal 1996, and $65,363 in the second.

How does the cost of recycling compare to alternative disposal methods? A spokeswoman for Dade's solid waste department welcomed the question and asserted that recycling is significantly cheaper than dumping.

"From the beginning, there was a fervor to recycle," notes Deborah Higer, chief of service development for Metro-Dade's Department of Solid Waste Management. "But things run in cycles. We anticipated that the fervor would go away at some point and we would have to explain what we were doing. We never did recycling just for the sake of recycling at any cost. It had to make sense financially."

How is it that county officials believe that recycling makes sense financially? Because, Higer says, it costs $126 per ton to recycle garbage versus $132 per ton to landfill it.

The figures are patently, if unintentionally, misleading, and the reason is not hard to fathom.

The $132 it costs to dump a ton of garbage in a Dade County landfill comprises expenses of collection ($87) and of the actual disposal of the garbage ($45). But this latter component -- the tipping fee charged at Mount Trashmore -- reflects myriad fixed costs within the county solid waste system that have nothing to do with the actual operation or maintenance of the landfill, including expensive tidbits such as interest payments on $58 million of debt still owed on Dade's gigantic West Dade incinerator. Debt service alone accounts for twenty percent of the $45 tipping fee.

Higer says she thinks the true cost of landfill disposal in Dade may be as low as twenty dollars per ton. The figure for burying garbage used in her comparison therefore turns out to be considerably lower than it seems on first blush. On the other hand, the true cost of recycling a ton of garbage is in fact slightly more than Higer suggests, because her figures fail to take into consideration an additional $110,000 spent by the county last year on things like printing and telephone calls directly related to curbside recycling. Tapping a few keys on an office calculator, Higer acknowledges that if these things are taken into account, Dade Countians spent at least $1.3 million more last year than if they had simply buried their recyclables. Wouldn't a revised set of figures be helpful in evaluating the cost of recycling versus landfills?

Maybe not. In November 1995, the Solid Waste Association of North America compared the costs of various waste disposal methods in six U.S. urban areas. Among other findings of the researchers was the warning that the EPA has been misleading Congress for years about the relative merits of recycling by calculating costs the same way Dade does.

"Comparing the average cost per ton of managing garbage to the average cost per ton of [recycling] programs is inappropriate and can lead to erroneous conclusions," they wrote. "In general, the comparison ... does not provide any insights into economic impact.... [T]he importance of this lesson cannot be overstated."

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