Tuesday, March 13, 2007

A Religion By Any Other Name …

Last year I wrote a post called the Church of Recycling. My city is among those that have a curbside recycling program. We have lovely blue 90-gallon bins into which we can toss category 1 and 2 plastics, paper, cardboard, aluminum, cans, and small electronics/appliances (but not glass). Every other week, a truck from the contracted service comes around and picks up the junk in our recycling bins and we are left with the warm assurance that we are doing our part to save the environment.

Only it turns out, as noted in this article by James Thayler, that the whole thing (which costs a chunk of change in our monthly bill) is not based on rational fact. Thayler cites one expert as using facts to argue that the whole recycling campaign is an “irrational religion” in which “perfervid faith compensates for lack of factual support.”

Today’s Standard Examiner includes an article noting that most Top of Utah towns do not sponsor curbside recycling due to its poor cost to benefit ratio. The article quotes Clinton City Manager Dennis Cluff as being disgusted with a visit to the presumably temporary recycling storage facility employed by the city he formerly managed in Oregon. He said, “There was mountains and mountains of storage along the Columbia River” due to a lack of market for the materials.

Many Davis and Morgan County localities are achieving a measure of recycling by shipping their solid waste to the Wasatch Management District (a.k.a. Davis Burn Plant). Although the plant has had air pollution problems in the past, it performs much better since new equipment was installed. Trash is burned to create steam and electricity, which is sold to Hill Air Force Base.

Everybody wins, because the “best curbside recycling program in the country only keeps 15 to 20 percent of the trash out of a landfill,” while the “burn plant diverts about 50 percent of the waste from the landfill.” The ash byproduct represents only about 10% of the initial waste volume and is “is more stable than piles of garbage.” (I’m not sure how the math works on that one.)

The Standard Examiner article agrees with the Thayler article about glass recycling. There is no market for it. Why? Because the base materials for making glass are among the most plentiful and inexpensive elements on the face of the earth, and because it’s cheaper to make new glass than to melt down and reform old glass.

It is no secret that my city’s recycling program is not self supporting. But the fee is not split out separate from our regular garbage fee, so it is difficult to know exactly how much I pay for the service each month. I am trying to find out how effective our service is, how much of the material eventually goes to the landfill, and how much is sitting in ‘temporary’ storage somewhere.

It turns out that answers to these questions are difficult to come by, either because officials don’t know the answers or don’t care. It seems that these officials are a lot like me and my neighbors. (Heck, they are my neighbors.) Once the bins are emptied and the trucks leave the city limits, we’re like the proverbial three monkeys that see, hear, and speak no evil.

I am not optimistic that anything will change even if the answers to these questions turn out to be less than supportive of our city’s system. The good citizens of my city have largely bought into the goodness of the program. The dogma has already won out. The facts will matter little because we are addicted to those environmentally friendly warm fuzzies that warm our hearts when we wheel our blue bins out to the curb.


Jesse said...

Metals are about the only recyclable that makes a solid business case. You already know about glass. Paper uses so many harsh chemicals in the re-processing that it's a net negative effect compared to a logging operation with selective harvest.

One of the big problems we're going to face is electronics. They have a lot of really nasty materials in them (mercury, lead, arsenic, etc.) that can and do leak into water supplies, yet most areas have no recycling program for them. Many of the pieces could be refurbished and reused while others can be broken down into useful parts for resale. Unsurprisingly, the Silicon Valley area has one of the more successful electronics recycling programs in the nation.

Reach Upward said...

Thanks for the info. I'm hoping that the electronics I have chucked in the recycling bin have actually been recycled.

On paper, I'm wondering about reusing it for other purposes. The paper bin at our local elementary school is owned by an insulation firm. Since they pay the school for the paper tonnage they take in, I assume that they are able to turn a profit at it. I wonder if it is any more environmentally friendly than developing insulation from raw materials.

y-intercept said...

I am a big fan of recycling; but I worry that the government subsidized recycling craze is doing the industry poorly. Prior to government enforced recycling, we saw the emergence of a vibrant economic forces that was building local markets for recycled goods. The government subsidies of the recycling seems to be undermining these market forces.

In the recycling world, there are some items with a great deal of value, and others with relatively little value. For example, white bond is a premium material. Unfortunately, when you mix white bond with other papers, you reduce its value.

The free market was moving in ways that would separate the most valuable recyclable materials from the trash. This effort maximizes the value of the recyclable materials. The government subsidized programs are all aimed at maximizing the percent of garbage recyled. They do this by encouraging people to mix in different types of garbage. This makes large quantities of less valuable stuff.

I am a super big fan of recycling. However, I don't know the best way to procede. In situations where we don't know the best way to proceed, it is best to leave the situation to market forces and let the market forces sort it out.

Reach Upward said...

Kevin, I appreciate your view of allowing the free market to work out what is best.

When our city first began curbside recycling, we all had three small bins: one each for paper, glass, and metal. There were specifications of what types of materials would be accepted. After a couple of years, the city and the contracted recycler discovered that citizens were willing, but were really bad at separating materials in a useful fashion. They ended up having workers separate the stuff by hand anyway. So they ended up just dumping everything into one bin in the collection truck.

They also discovered that there is no market for recycling glass. So the next step was to eliminate the three small bins in favor of one big bin. Glass was excluded, but several other items (most notably electronics) were included. So the process does concentrate on volume rather than quality. The contractor seems to be able to turn a tidy profit anyway. But, obviously, a lot of the stuff ends up being un-recyclable anyway.

The citizens feel good, but the process is not the best way to do recycling. It is inefficient and doesn't reduce solid waste volume by that much.

But convenience is also important. Before our community did curbside recycling, it had the contractor come to a public location one Saturday each month to collect stuff. It was wildly popular, but it was highly inconvenient. So, although the traffic at these events was heavy, a relatively small segment of the population recycled. Today, about 2/3rds of households recycle because it is convenient. But it seems that the actual cost-benefit ratio is lousy.

Frank Staheli said...

It does seem odd that a city would charge you for a recycling "service". One would think that a company could figure out how to pay us for it.

I agree that the free market will solve this problem better than government anyday.