Is Recycling Worth the Trouble, Cost?

Is recycling garbage? It's an old debate with new life now that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has proposed an 18-month moratorium on recycling glass, plastic and aluminum in cash-strapped Gotham.

Like countless other municipal leaders in these hard times, Bloomberg faces the daunting task of balancing a massive budget deficit — in New York's case, it's $4.76 billion.

But environmentalists are concerned that Bloomberg's plan, which will save the city an estimated $57 million, could serve as a blueprint for other city leaders looking to slice items from their budgets. Critics of recycling — and yes, there are a few — say Bloomberg shouldn't bother with a mere moratorium. They say he should just can the recycling program altogether.

For sure, recycling can be an expensive proposition for cities, a trait that makes it vulnerable to the chopping block.

Glass, metal and plastic recycling costs New York $240 per ton, almost double what it costs to just throw it away. Recycling costs vary by city according to a set of factors, including proximity to landfills, labor costs, amount and method of recycling and real estate prices.

How much paper, glass and aluminum get on the market also affect how much money cities lose on their programs. Right now, these goods are generally commanding low prices.

New York faces special problems with recycling because of population density, high concentration of apartment dwellers and language diversity. But even though New York is the largest city to propose a recycling stoppage, officials in Baltimore and Charleston, W. Va., have attempted similar plans, also citing costs.

Atoning for Our Sins

Critics of recycling, who say it has never lived up to its environmental or economic billing, are pleased but not surprised by Bloomberg's plan.

"The New York experience shows that recycling has failed as an economic proposition for municipalities," says Jerry Taylor, director of natural resource studies at the Cato Institute, a conservative think tank. "It's not a question of whether we want to pay, it's how do we want to spend scarce resources. Is it worth teachers, firemen, police on the beat?"

John Tierney, a reporter who wrote a controversial and influential 1996 New York Times magazine story titled "Recycling Is Garbage," recently praised Bloomberg's plan in a newspaper column.

Tierney suggests recycling will only pay its way when garbage is sorted by machine, not by hand. "Here in New York, one of the most expensive labor forces on the planet is being forced to sort materials that third world peasants wouldn't waste their time saving," he wrote.

Not only is recycling an "expensive gesture," but the environmental benefits of recycling have been oversold, Taylor said. Breathless claims that we are running out of landfill space, long-familiar in the recycling debate, are baseless, he said.

A common statistic cited by recycling critics is that the next 1,000 years-worth of trash would only fill a 35-square mile landfill that is 100 yards deep. Not something you want to live near, of course, but not exactly Earth-swallowing, either.

It is also a myth that recycling is saving scarce commodities, Taylor alleges. Are we running out of sand to make glass, he asks? No. For paper, we can create commercial tree farms.

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