More and more Americans have been taking recycling seriously over the last two decades. So much so that today, the EPA says about 30% of the trash Americans produce in their homes is recycled. And the recycling rate for most Midwest states is near that average, but while the agency expects that number to continue to rise, not everyone thinks more recycling is better for the environment. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mark Brodie takes a look at the economics of recycling:
More and more Americans have been taking recycling seriously over the last two decades. So much so that today, the EPA says about 30 percent of the trash Americans produce in their homes is recycled. And the recycling rate for most Great Lakes states is near that average. But while the agency expects that number to continue to rise, not everyone thinks more recycling is better for the environment. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mark Brodie takes a look at the economics of recycling.
A small bulldozer collects materials that have sprawled out across the floor of this recycling center…. it then pushes the mound up against a wall. The glass and plastic pile up almost to the ceiling of the building … some ten feet in the air. Welcome to the tipping floor, where workers collect and sort recyclables from the Albany, New York area. Joe Gieblehaus is the solid waste manager for the city. He says Albany officials hope to recycle between 30 and 35 percent of the city’s waste…
“The 30 to 35 gives us I guess the best bang for our buck, basically, recycling is a situation of declining marginal returns. If we try to go after another product in the waste stream, it just costs us more money, and more money, and more money and more money. 30 to 35 seems to give us an economic benefit, the best economic benefit available.”
Albany’s recycling target is similar to that put out by the EPA… and is about the limit that one former EPA assistant administrator says is necessary. Doctor J. Winston Porter was instrumental in starting curbside recycling in the United States in the 1980’s…. but now he says people are taking a good thing too far.
“The last few years, I’ve been somewhat concerned that people are, if anything, aiming too high. You know, I set a 25% goal and there’s nothing wrong with going to 30 or 35 or 40% if you can. But I think many states have set goals of like 50% and I think what we’re doing, we’re getting into an area that’s very non-cost effective and may even hurt the environment because you’re in effect trying to use too much energy and too much processing to recycle too much trash.”
One of those states that’s right about at porter’s limit is Wisconsin. Greg Swanson of the state’s department of natural resources says Wisconsin recycles about 40 percent of its waste. He says the state’s laws call for beneficial re-use. That means the state does not want to spend more energy recycling something than it took to make it in the first place. Swanson says that makes decisions about what to recycle and what not to recycle a little easier.
“You’d like to be able to recycle everything that’s recyclable, but you have to keep in mind the political and economic realities of being able to actually do something with it once you collect it.”
Swanson says that end result is crucial for recycling programs to survive. He says Wisconsin has budgeted more than 24 million dollars for recycling programs this year. That money goes to pay for trucks, drivers, and people who sort the recyclables, among other things. If a state or city recycles something, it has to be able to sell it. If the costs of recycling are higher than the profits from selling the materials, the city or state loses money on the deal. But not everybody believes more recycling hurts the economy. Will Ferrety is the executive director of the national recycling coalition. He says the more Americans recycle, the better it is for both the environment…. and the economy.
“At its fundamental basis, recycling is helping us eliminate the notion of waste because if we can turn what would otherwise be a discarded product into a useful product, we’re making for a more efficient system.”
Ferrety says states should try and recycle as much as possible. He says it’s preferable to many of the alternatives.
“When you look at that entire system, and compare that to what I would call a one-way system where we extract resources, make a new product, use them up, and simply throw them away in a landfill, hands down, there’s less energy used, there’s fewer air pollutants, there’s fewer water pollutants that result from that recycling system when compared to that one way system.”
Among Great Lakes states, Minnesota and New York have the highest recycling rates…at more than 40 percent each of their total waste. The EPA says other Great Lakes states recycle between 20 and 29 percent. Albany, New York’s Joe Gieblehaus says even though many officials on the state and local level would like to recycle more…. the green of the environment sometimes has to take a back seat to the green in the wallet. He says the market drives decisions about whether or not to recycle something. He says the city can only recycle materials that can then be sold to offset the cost of collecting them in the first place.
“There are so few end uses to close the loop; it’s hard for us at the beginning of the loop to find a market for this material…a sustainable market for this material.”
Gieblehaus says his trucks collect about 13 thousand tons of recycled materials a year. He says that’s just enough to help keep the environment green…. without putting the city into the red. For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Mark Brodie.