Why Recycle?

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

The researchers, funded by the American Plastics Council and the U.S. Department of Energy, concluded that curbside recycling programs and waste-to-energy incinerators like Dade's tend to increase the cost of municipal solid waste disposal. In Palm Beach County, for example, recycling was eleven percent more expensive and waste-to-energy incineration nineteen percent more expensive than landfilling. Recycling also increases tipping fees at landfills. By diverting garbage to recycling programs, cities and counties make less money from their dumps and have to spread the fixed costs of their entire solid waste infrastructure over fewer and fewer new tons of revenue-producing refuse.

Owing to the Byzantine accounting practices employed by Dade's giant, $165 million garbage management system, county administrators have only the most tenuous grasp of the relative cost of recycling versus other alternatives. If per-ton cost analysis is fatally flawed, how else to do it?

According to Higer, the solid waste department has never conducted a study such as the one cited above. It did, however, develop a solid waste master plan -- a two-volume opus so detailed and lengthy it poses health risks to anyone required to carry it to a trusty recycling bin. Beginning in 1990, the department attempted to project the various costs of different disposal strategies using a method known as life cycle analysis, a financial methodology that takes into consideration expenses and benefits over the long haul. The conclusion: Building a new, high-tech landfill would take four to six years and result in an "average life cycle cost per ton" of $45. For curbside recycling, the comparable cost was believed to be "generally between $100 and $150."

The six-area analysis that included Palm Beach County reached its conclusions by carefully taking into account certain hidden costs associated with recycling that aren't commonly considered: the inefficiency built into collections systems like Dade's that employ two separate fleets of trucks (one for recyclables, one for garbage), the diesel fuel consumed transporting recyclable materials to market, the problems that result when people leave caps on plastic Sprite bottles or toss nondesignated trinkets such as polyfoam cups and egg cartons into the recycling bins. But neither Dade County nor the Solid Waste Association of North America has ever attempted to measure what may be the biggest hidden cost of all -- the free labor drained from households and businesses that annually separate, store, and carry to the curb millions of tons of glass, steel, aluminum, and paper.

If you spent only five minutes per week on these chores, and believe that your time is worth that of an entry-level Dade garbage collector ($20,600 per year), the resulting labor value is $3.58 tacked onto the $2.16 monthly fee you already pay -- an additional cost of $11.2 million for Dade householders. What about the space that your recycling bin or bucket takes up in your home? If you live in an average apartment, that means an additional hidden cost of 50 cents to a dollar per month at current market rates. Then there's the water consumed in rinsing out those cat food cans. That costs something too.

Your response may be that you don't mind donating a little time to a worthy cause. That's great. Alan Stein at BFI thanks you.

If recycling costs more than other means of waste disposal, then why do it? Recycling enthusiasts invariably look to their second argument: It's good for the environment.

But the environment in question may not be the one close at hand -- not, at least, that portion of the local environment often thought to be threatened by the evils of not recycling. Earlier this year, an examination by New Times of test data from surface water samples and nineteen ground-water monitoring wells showed that even the old, unlined cell at Mount Trashmore does not pollute, as it occasionally did in the past. (The two oldest garbage mountains have been sealed with a limestone cap, warding off rainfall that used to flush pollutants into nearby canals.) Contrary to popular belief, toxic effluent is not oozing out into Biscayne Bay from the waterfront dump. Of course, any landfill has the potential to become an environmental hazard at some point during its life cycle. But comparing the new cells that await future garbage to the old, low-tech cells is like comparing a Nissan Maxima to a Model T. The new cells exceed state and federal safety guidelines, which call for a network of leachate drainage pipes and a floor made of compacted limestone, a layer of clay, and a seamless 60-millimeter-thick plastic liner. Not only does Trashmore have plenty of available landfill space, the new cells are a paragon of modern design and safety standards. Even its alleged infamous aroma is mostly a myth -- the worst stink comes from a private Fifties-era dump hidden just across the road, which has spontaneously combusted for decades, sending smoke over the landscape for up to seven miles. It's exactly this sort of dump that gave landfills a bad name, and that found their scary nadir in Love Canal.

The idea that recycling is good for the environment has mostly to do with the concept of resource scarcity.

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