LAST YEAR, A SURGE in the market price for recycled materials prompted a spate of recycling-has-finally-arrived articles. At one point, New York was selling its old newspapers for $150 per ton, which was almost enough to offset the extra costs of the paper recycling program. But newsprint prices have since plummeted back to familiar levels; New York is once again paying recyclers to take its newspapers, and city officials are resigned to losing money on recycling. As a result of a lawsuit by City Council members and the Natural Resources Defense Council, the city has been under court order to collect increasing amounts of recyclable material to meet goals set in law. City officials have promised to comply by expanding the recycling program and promoting a separate program in the public schools, but they’ve been stalling because they don’t want to increase the budget deficit.
Officials in some cities claim that curbside recycling programs are cheaper than burying the garbage in a landfill, which can be true in places where the landfill fees are high and the collection costs aren’t as exorbitant as in New York. But officials who claim that recycling programs save money often don’t fully account for the costs. “A lot of programs, especially in the early years, have used funny-money economics to justify recycling,” says Chaz Miller, a contributing editor for Recycling Times, a trade newspaper. “There’s been a messianic zeal that’s hurt the cause. The American public loves recycling, but we have to do it efficiently. It should be a business, not a religion.”
Recycling programs didn’t fare well in a Federally financed study conducted by the the Solid Waste Association of North America, a trade association for municipal waste-management officials. The study painstakingly analyzed costs in six communities (Minneapolis; Palm Beach, Fla.; Seattle; Scottsdale, Ariz; Sevierville, Tenn., and Springfield, Mass.). It found that all but one of the curbside recycling programs, and all the composting operations and waste-to-energy incinerators, increased the cost of waste disposal. (The exception was Seattle’s curbside program, which was slightly cheaper — by one-tenth of 1 percent — than putting the garbage in a landfill.) Studies in European cities have reached similar conclusions. Recycling has been notoriously unprofitable in Germany, whose national program is even less efficient than New York’s.
“We have to recognize that recycling costs money,” says William Franklin, an engineer who has conducted a national study of recycling costs for the not-for-profit group Keep America Beautiful. He estimates that, at today’s prices, a curbside recycling program typically adds 15 percent to the costs of waste disposal — and more if communities get too ambitious.
Franklin and other researchers have concluded that recycling does at least save energy — the extra fuel burned while picking up recyclables is more than offset by the energy savings from manufacturing less virgin paper, glass and metal. “The net result of recycling is lower energy consumption and lower releases of air and water pollutants,” says Richard Denison, a senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, which has calculated the ecological benefits of recycling. But there are much more direct — and cheaper — ways to reduce pollution. Recycling is a messy way to try to help the environment. Consider a few questions whose answers would seem obvious to the environmentally aware:
Does a 5-cent deposit on a soft-drink can help the environment? Mandatory deposits encourage recycling and reduce litter, but these programs typically spend $500 for every ton of cans and bottles collected, which makes curbside recycling look like a bargain. States without mandatory deposits — like Texas and Washington — have proven that the most efficient way to reduce litter is to hire clean-up crews, which pick up a lot more than just bottles and cans. Recycling takes money that could be used for other clean-up efforts: when New York’s Sanitation Department started its recycling program, it cut back on street cleaning.
Are reusable cups and plates better than disposables? A ceramic mug may seem a more virtuous choice than a cup made of polystyrene, the foam banned by ecologically conscious local governments. But it takes much more energy to manufacture the mug, and then each washing consumes more energy (not to mention water). According to calculations by Martin Hocking, a chemist at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, you would have to use the mug 1,000 times before its energy-consumption-per-use is equal to the cup. (If the mug breaks after your 900th coffee, you would have been better off using 900 polystyrene cups.) A more immediate environmental impact has been demonstrated by studies in restaurants: the average number of bacterial organisms on reusable cups, plates and flatware is 200 times greater than on disposable ones.
Should you recycle today’s newspaper? Saving a tree is a mixed blessing. When there’s less demand for virgin wood pulp, timber companies are likely to sell some of their tree farms — maybe to condominium developers. Less virgin pulp means less pollution at paper mills in timber country, but recycling operations create pollution in areas where more people are affected: fumes and noise from collection trucks, solid waste and sludge from the mills that remove ink and turn the paper into pulp. Recycling newsprint actually creates more water pollution than making new paper: for each ton of recycled newsprint that’s produced, an extra 5,000 gallons of waste water are discharged.