The truth about curbside recycling

What do San Diego and Bakersfield have in common? They're the only two of the top 20 cities in California that don't have uniform curbside recycling services.

by Stuart Watson

n the past several years, solid waste recycling programs have grown in virtually every part of California. But, the City of San Diego just doesn't seem to be able to get with the program.

Uniform curbside recycling has been implemented in all parts of San Diego County except for the city itself. Furthermore, it has been implemented in all large cities in California except San Diego and Bakersfield.

Last month, City Council members again refused to take a leadership role when they declined to expand curbside services. In fact, they even considered eliminating the current limited services.

What makes San Diego so retrograde with respect to this important service? Conventional wisdom holds that municipal budgets are too tight, and elected official gauge that residents are reluctant to pay for these services. Time and time again, one hears statements such as, "Recycling is a good idea, it just costs too much."

Misconceptions about the economics of recycling are widespread. Several national media sources have recently and strongly denounced recycling, claiming that the costs to a community are much greater than the benefits. For example, one article appearing in The New York Times claims, "Recycling may be the most wasteful activity in Modern America: a waste of time and money, a waste of human and natural resources." Finding that there is no national shortage of landfill capacity, this and similar articles have accused recycling of being a government mandate that is diverting funding from more essential basic services. Articles and statements such as these are hurting San Diego residents by weakening public support for, and participation in recycling programs.

This article aims to dispel these misconceptions by providing a more thorough picture of the costs and benefits of recycling than the usual superficial treatments. First, we will look at the conventional, direct costs of recycling programs. Next, we will focus on the indirect costs and benefits of recycling programs - factors that are often ignored but that have a substantial impact on the economics of recycling.

Part 1: Conventional costs

Recycling does not "cost too much." The vast bulk of recycling (73 percent by weight) consists of commercial waste products and products collected through drop-off and buy-back centers. These centers almost always operate at a profit. (The San Diego phone book lists three pages of private recycling businesses.)

Another 14 percent of recycling collections are generated by yard waste composting programs. These programs alone usually cost significantly less than basic refuse collection and disposal.

What is left is the implicit target of the anti-recycling forces: residential curbside recycling.

Comparing apple cores and orange peels

The high cost of implementing and operating curbside recycling programs provides ammunition for anti-environmental interests who claim that mandatory recycling goals and ordinances, such as California's Assembly Bill 939, are hurting our local economies. These recycling critics argue that it costs more to collect and process a ton of recyclables than it does to collect a ton of refuse, and the value of the recovered materials does not compensate for this cost.

These claims are supported by a 1994 study by Franklin Associates, Ltd. The study found that the value of the recovered recycled materials only covers the cost of processing the materials. The average national curbside recycling collection cost was estimated at $114 per ton, while refuse collection costs were only $71 per ton.

This criticism is based on valid, but incomplete, information. The above analysis only considers collection costs, and ignores the costs and benefits of the alternative program options. A more appropriate way of determining the relative values is to compare the net cost per ton of curbside recycling (collection and processing costs, minus the revenue generated by selling the recovered materials) to the total cost per ton cost of refuse disposal (collection, hauling, and dumping fees). These costs differ greatly between communities, depending on the local geography, geology, economy, demographics, institutional arrangements and other factors.

Universal service = Lower costs

There are many examples of municipalities that have achieved a lower cost for recycling than for refuse disposal. Yet, curbside recycling costs do remain higher than refuse service costs in the majority of communities throughout the country.

A number of factors conspire to make recyclable collection, as generally practiced, less efficient than refuse collection. Fewer residents participate in curbside recycling. Those participating set out bins less frequently, and recycling bins generally hold much less than a trash bins. By contrast, all households typically have refuse service and very few households miss a collection day. Thus, a recycling vehicle must travel further, make more stops, and spend more time at each stop than a refuse truck to collect each ton of material.

This relationship has important consequences: to lower curbside recycling costs, increase recycling participation. The costs of collection make up the largest component of the recycling process. As more households participate, the travel time between each collection stop is minimized. As more materials are recycled at each stop, less distance is traveled for more materials.

These assertions have been verified in a comprehensive study which found that curbside recycling collection costs drop as participation rates increase. Another 60-city study calculated that when the recycling rates increase to more than 10 percent of total waste generated, recycling collection costs are reduced by 64 percent.

San Diego lags

This relationship has important consequences for San Diego area residents. Less than 30 per cent of the households in the City of San Diego currently have access to curbside recycling, and it is estimated that only 75 percent of these households participate. Furthermore, the households that are participating are still throwing many recyclables in the trash. This under-utilization of recycling bins is endemic in all areas in San Diego County. It substantially increases costs for all residents and further limits the funding available to expand curbside recycling to new areas.

In contrast, Seattle households generate only about half the amount of trash and more than three and a half times the amount of recyclables as the average household with curbside recycling in the City of San Diego. Consequently, Seattle saves close to $45 for every ton of solid waste they recycle.

High recycling rates are common in communities that provide residents with economic incentives to recycle by charging them according to the amount of trash they throw away. Recycling costs can also be lowered by using an automated system in which residents set out all recyclables in the same bin (co-mingled), instead of having to separate the materials into different bins themselves. By using this system, Phoenix has been able to reduce net recycling costs to $50 per ton. This is roughly the same as the lowest cost for collecting and disposing of a ton of trash in San Diego County.

The message is simple: poor public participation and poor public and official support for recycling programs increase your taxes and solid waste service fees. With enough support and participation by residents, curbside recycling can provide a significant cost savings.

Part 2: The hidden benefits of recycling

The previous analysis only considers the conventional financial costs borne by the agency or business managing solid waste programs in our community. As residents, we pay for these costs. However, we also experience a multitude of other, more significant economic and environmental costs and benefits with each solid waste management alternative. These include the costs and environmental impacts of the waste stream on our air, water, energy and land resources. Unfortunately, these factors are difficult to measure and quantify, and only a handful of studies have been performed. This had led to a tendency to discount these factors, even though the costs and impacts are real.

One influential study by the Tellus Institute (1992) attempted to quantify the air and water pollution generated by items that are commonly found in the waste stream. The pollution costs were evaluated using the current costs of remediation and pollution abatement, indicating the economic value that society places on particular pollutants. In other words, these are the costs that society endures for maintaining air and water quality at minimum acceptable levels.

The Tellus study found that the environmental costs for collection and disposal of refuse is about $1 per ton. The direct environmental costs of collecting and processing recyclables were slightly higher. However, when the environmental impacts of using these recovered recyclables were included (replacing new raw materials that would have to be used), the net result was a substantial environmental benefit.

When we apply the air and water pollution costs from the study to the typical components of a curbside recycling bin collected in the City, the net environmental benefit of production with these recyclables (minus the environmental costs of collecting, processing and transporting them) is a whopping $98.79 per ton.

Energy savings

While the Tellus analysis quantifies the pollution cost savings of using recycled materials in the production process, it does not attempt to quantify the energy cost savings. The process of extracting a natural resources and turning it into a usable raw material is often extremely energy intensive. In contrast, the use of recycled materials as feedstock into a production process requires minimal processing.

A recent study by the Environmental Defense Fund (1995) calculates that the use of one ton of recovered materials in the production of new products saves $187 worth of electricity, petroleum, natural gas and coal, even after accounting for the energy used to collect and transport the materials. This cost savings benefit the producer, who can pass the savings on to the consumer. This energy and material cost savings is the reason that there has always been substantial recycling in the industrial sector - long before any government recycled mandate was born.

Recycling = Jobs

Recycling programs benefit the local economy by creating jobs and supporting the tax base. A report by the Institute for Local Self Reliance (ILSR) found that 15,000 tons of solid waste creates an average of one job if landfilled, two jobs if incinerated, seven jobs if composted, and nine jobs if processed for recycling. The economic potential of recycling is further expanded if a community recovers enough materials to attract new scrap-based remanufacturing industries.

A 1996 study by ILSR estimates that paper mills and plastic manufacturers based on scrap materials currently employ 60 times more workers than landfills. The economic benefits from remanufacturing scrap material can be enormous: the State of Massachusetts benefited from $588 million of added value by recyclable remanufacturing in 1991.

Recycling is good policy

These attempts at quantifying environmental and economic factors for solid waste activities and material production may be far from exact, but they represent real costs and benefits to society. Comparing the impacts of recycling to the costs and benefits of refuse disposal shows that every community should establish and incorporate a fiscal preference for recycling programs to compensate for the non-market factors.

Recycling is not an "environmental hobby;" it is an economic imperative. But before you rush out to purchase cases of products in recyclable packaging, remember that recycling is an alternative to trash disposal. Source reduction is the primary goal, and every ton of waste that is prevented at the source saves your community hundreds of dollars in operational, environmental, and energy costs.

If your household already has curbside recycling, support the program by participating fully. If your household does not have recycling, contact your Mayor and City Council representatives and express your support for curbside recycling or additional, convenient recycling drop-off locations.

Remember: trash is a terrible thing to waste.

Stuart Watson is a Project Coordinator at the Urban Corps of San Diego with a peculiar interest in solid waste management. He is currently pursuing a Master's Degree in Public Administration at SDSU, writing his thesis on Unit Pricing for Solid Waste. He can be reached at (619)235-0137.