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.
The value of recycling aluminum, however, is generally agreed upon since it is a metal, and producing a can out of virgin ore instead of recycled aluminum uses up half the can's volume in gasoline.
In Taylor's view, recycling is largely a hoax. "Recycling has been sold as a civic act of spiritual atonement for the high standards of living that we engage in," Taylor said. "One way to atone for these terrible sins we inflict on the planet is to sort our plastic from our paper from our tin. It's an easy way for people to feel better and helps us assuage some of that guilt."
Use It or Lose It?
Advocates of recycling say these arguments miss the point. Yes, recycling can be costly for some cities, especially if it isn't done properly and efficiently. But we don't recycle to save money, they say, we do it to save the planet.
"In economic terms, it's very often a losing proposition but the thing is, human work does not have the same environmental consequences that exploiting virgin resources has. From a sustainability point of view, recycling has value," said John Tiemstra, a professor of economics at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Proponents of recycling probably oversold it by downplaying costs, says Chaz Miller, director of state programs for the National Solid Wastes Management Association. But Americans recycle anyway.
"People want to recycle because they believe they're saving resources," Miller said. "Clearly some materials can be used again. Clearly you're saving energy when you're reusing instead of using a virgin product."
"Whether for a good or a bad reason, Americans absolutely love recycling. That's OK as long as they understand it ain't free," Miller said.
Indeed, Americans have taken to being "green" — we recycle almost a third of the solid waste we produce. Recycling programs are more popular than ever, as 25 million Americans now have access to recycling programs.
But advocates worry that if recycling programs are dismantled due to budget problems, even temporarily, consumers will fall out of practice. Already, public education is a huge factor in making recycling work. When consumers don't sort and clean their recyclables, the costs of labor go up along with potential for contamination.
It's Only Natural
Some advocates also dispute the notion that recycling is economically unsound. The National Recycling Coalition recently released a study on recycling's economic benefits showing that 1.1 million Americans work in the recycling industry, comprising an annual payroll of $37 billion.
But experts are still looking for ways to make recycling more efficient and attractive.
Pay-as-you-throw programs, where consumers pay more to toss out more garbage, are believed to have a built-in economic incentive to recycle. Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle are among the cities that have already adopted such plans.
Another option, Tiemstra says, is to charge a tax at the time of purchase based on how much goods weigh. Consumers can get a rebate on the fee if they recycle the product.
Reducing the materials used in products and packaging through manufacture and design is another way to cut costs. Since 1977, the weight of 2-liter plastic soft drink bottles has been reduced from 68 grams each to 51 grams.
Costs aside, environmentalists still say recycling pays.
"Should people waste natural resources? That's what happens, you waste it when you throw it in the landfill," said Kate Krebs, interim executive director of the National Recycling Coalition. "That really gets to the fundamental makeup of a human being. It goes against nature."