Energy & Environment

Recycling's Reality Check

While their public popularity is unabated, recycling programs are encountering some real-world problems and limits.
by | October 2000

Over the past decade, recycling has become enshrined among the government services--like water, sewers, police and fire protection-- that residents expect cities or counties to provide. So the pressure is on localities to maintain, and in many cases to expand, these popular but costly waste recovery programs.

Officials in Amsterdam, New York, found that out early this year, when the state attorney general took the city to court for suspending its problem-plagued recycling program. The way state officials interpret New York's 1989 solid waste law, the city doesn't have the option of discontinuing curbside collection of waste materials that potentially can be reused. Under the legal gun, Amsterdam revived weekly collection in August, at double the city's previous cost. "The fact is that recycling is an extra cost to the community, but that doesn't mean it isn't worthwhile," concludes Mayor John M. Duchessi Jr.

Recycling is undoubtedly here to stay, but as Amsterdam's travails illustrate, it can hardly be considered an unqualified success. Despite strong citizen endorsement and participation, recycling programs generally aren't yielding all of the economic as well as environmental paybacks that the most enthusiastic proponents once envisioned. Although few municipalities are cutting back on curbside collection, they are increasingly worried about how they'll cover the ongoing costs of picking up, separating, and marketing recyclable material. With the demand for recovered commodities continuing to fluctuate, solid-waste managers are recognizing that recycling won't come close to paying for itself, at least in the foreseeable future.

In short, reality has set in. By now, it's clear that every state is falling well short of the ambitious--if arbitrary--start-of-the- century goals that state legislatures established a decade ago to divert more waste from local landfills. In California, as many as half of the state's cities and counties may be forced to seek reprieves for missing the deadline the state has set this year for reclaiming 50 percent of their garbage. Meanwhile, other recycling pioneers such as Wisconsin have begun debating how long states should keep subsidizing the state-of-the-art service that recycling laws require cities and counties to provide. Political support for those mandates shows no sign of ebbing, but states and communities are being forced to rethink optimistic assumptions they made when resource-recovery programs were designed.

In retrospect, "maybe it was rose-colored glasses at the time," Milwaukee, Wisconsin's resource-recovery manager, Michael Engelbart, remarks more than a little ruefully. In the late 1980s, officials figured that requiring communities to rapidly expand curbside collection programs would create brand-new industries to reuse the commodities retrieved from municipal solid-waste streams. Instead of growing with the booming economy of the 1990s, however, market demand has ebbed and flowed for the old newspapers, aluminum cans, plastic milk jugs, composted yard wastes and other commodities that have become the staples of most recycling programs. A critical U.S. Supreme Court decision, meanwhile, denied local governments the "flow control" authority they had counted on to generate the predictable revenues needed to finance recycling and other solid-waste management innovations.

As a consequence, states' best-laid recycling plans haven't fully panned out. In its 1989 recycling law, for instance, Wisconsin levied a corporate-tax surcharge for a 10-year period to pay for launching municipal recycling programs. State officials assumed that by the time the tax expired, new recycling plants within the state would have created enough demand that local governments could cover the costs themselves by selling recovered materials. But no new recycled paper mills or plastic plants have opened in Wisconsin. "The market wasn't generated by the private sector, so recycling isn't self-sufficient," Engelbart says.

Wisconsin's surcharge expired last year, and Governor Tommy Thompson has been sparring with the legislature over how much the state should continue kicking in to keep municipal recycling programs running.

Regardless of how many expectations have gone unmet, recycling has steadily expanded throughout the country. By 1998, BioCycle magazine reports, governments were operating or supervising more than 9,300 curbside programs serving nearly 140 million people. The magazine's annual surveys show that waste-diversion rates have climbed steadily over past decade, rising from 8 percent in 1990 to 31.5 percent eight years later, including yard-waste composting in the calculations. Growth leveled off the last few years, however, as might be expected when programs approach maturity. Last year's results are still being compiled, but it's been clear for several years that many local governments simply can't meet the waste-diversion goals that 43 of the 50 states have established.

Florida easily surpassed its 30 percent target--reaching 39 percent in 1998. But although Minnesota reached 45 percent, and New York State and New Jersey were at 43 percent in 1998, all three missed self- imposed deadlines for diverting half of their waste from landfills. Twenty states are now approaching 2000 or 2001 deadlines, but almost all will fall short of their targets. Fourteen states have officially adopted 50 percent recycling goals; New Jersey's objective is 65 percent. Of those, Indiana and Hawaii were below 25 percent, and New Mexico was stuck at 10 percent in the magazine's latest calculations. Even environmentally conscious California and Washington have given up on meeting the 50 percent standard this year.

Spokane, Washington, got to 42 percent a couple of years ago, "but then we went down to 40 percent for a couple of years" before rebounding in 1999, says Jessie Lang, the city's recycling coordinator. More than 100 Washington cities and counties have begun offering curbside collection, reaching more than 90 percent of the state's residents. Washington's recycling efforts made it up to a 39 percent statewide diversion rate in 1996. But then Pacific Rim markets for recycled paper fiber sagged, while metals markets were glutted.

In 1996, the Washington legislature eliminated funding for the Clean Washington Center, a state-run effort to promote recycling markets. Local government programs offering technical assistance for businesses that voluntarily recycled were also curtailed, and commercial recycling by Washington's businesses and industries has declined in the past four years. Overall, Washington's recycling rate dropped below 33 percent before recovering slightly. "Recycling just doesn't seem to be in the forefront of people's minds anymore," Lang observes.

Nonetheless, a state Ecology Department panel in February recommended retaining the state's 50 percent waste-diversion goal because "it still represents an important benchmark."

California has also formally stuck to its similar 2000 mandate even though it's evident that most cities and counties won't get there. The Golden State's 1989 Integrated Waste Management Act ordered cities and counties to offer recycling service and created a state board with the power to order lagging communities to step up efforts. The California law provided for a $10,000 per day fine for any local jurisdiction that fails to recycle, reuse, or otherwise divert 50 percent of its waste stream by the current year. Under that pressure, local governments and private waste-handling firms invested hundreds of millions of dollars to build up California's recycling infrastructure. In 1999, California's recycling and waste reduction programs kept 22.2 million tons of waste out of landfills. But the 1999 rate still reached just 39 percent, leaving many communities in peril of missing the 2000 target.

Acknowledging that possibility, three years ago the California Assembly amended the statute to authorize the state's Integrated Waste Management Board to grant time extensions for compliance. Agency officials say they won't know how many extensions they'll need to approve until this year's data are collected. According to the board's most recent figures, just 71 of California's 449 local solid-waste jurisdictions achieved 50 percent diversion rates for 1998, so it's likely that many cities and counties will need dispensations from the board. In Southern California's Ventura County, for instance, Kay Martin, the county's solid waste director, concedes "about half of our jurisdictions won't meet the mandate."

Martin says it's commonly understood that the California board has begun massaging waste-diversion numbers to boost as many communities as possible over the 50 percent barrier. In any case, many local government officials have long felt that setting what they view as an arbitrary target made little economic sense. Rushing to comply with the state's stringent law, a number of California cities and counties invested heavily during the early 1990s in recycling plants and equipment that have turned into white elephants. In one widely noted example, San Diego County nearly went bankrupt after spending $125 million to build a huge materials-recovery facility that never went into operation.

At this point, however, municipalities and private firms have spent heavily on trucks, bins and processing plants. California environmentalists and private waste companies consistently rally together to resist any legislative proposal to rethink recycling mandates. California's top-down approach has been in place for a decade, and "there is a conservatism that works against any legislative reform," Martin notes. "It would be political suicide for anyone to try to rescind recycling legislation."

It has become increasingly clear that once communities start providing recycling service, there's no going back. New York doesn't impose targets for municipalities, but state law requires them to provide curbside collection for commodities that can be economically marketed. While that may seem like a sensible approach, "nobody knows how to really do that kind of analysis on a material-by-material basis," says Randy Coburn, a New York recycling development official who chairs the Northeast Recycling Council.

That's why Amsterdam, a city of 20,000 people in the Mohawk River Valley, ran afoul of Attorney General Eliot Spitzer earlier this year when it canceled its program. When residents complained that Amsterdam's private recycling provider was sending useful materials to the landfill, the city council terminated the contract. "People don't like to wash and sort their recyclables only to see them dumped in the garbage truck," Mayor Duchessi declared at the time. "It was never the intention of the city to end recycling, but people were getting frustrated with service they weren't getting."

After the contract was canceled in January, city officials spent several months debating the cost of the recycling program; some council members suggested replacing curbside collection with a drop- off center that would be less expensive to operate. Meanwhile Spitzer singled out Amsterdam as an example for a campaign he unveiled in May to improve compliance with the state's recycling law. Spitzer's office began pressuring the city to revive its program and filed a lawsuit this summer. In August, the city revived curbside collection, signing a new contract for weekly service at a cost of $169,000 a year, double what the city had previously paid.

At that level, "recycling isn't revenue neutral, and it's certainly not revenue-enhancing," Duchessi says. Judith Enck, one of Spitzer's environmental lawyers, has conceded that communities aren't making money with recycling "but there are other economic benefits, and, besides, it's the law."

At least New York's Environmental Protection Fund now provides up to $5 million in matching funds to pay for local recycling coordinators and education programs. In some states, however, funding assistance has declined in recent years as recycling programs became established and state incentives were cut back. Even Wisconsin, where recycling gets enthusiastic public support, has begun debating whether the state should turn responsibility for funding the service over to local taxpayers.

Wisconsin requires communities with 5,000 or more residents to offer curbside collection. The state's 1989 temporary surcharge on state income taxes paid by businesses currently finances $24 million a year in state grants for local government programs. Last year, Thompson proposed letting the surcharge expire on schedule, then used his line- item veto to trim back a substitute business tax and a landfill tipping fee that the state Assembly had devised to generate additional recycling assistance.

That move left expected revenues $8 million short of current funding for Wisconsin's recycling programs. Not surprisingly, local officials, who've come to count on state grants to cover 35 percent of the costs they incur to offer recycling services, are alarmed. With recycling now well entrenched, they may have no choice but to dip into local property-tax revenues to maintain current pickup schedules. "Our program is too popular, so the public is going to pay for it," maintains George Dreckman, the solid-waste program manager in Madison.

However, Dreckman acknowledges the city may have to cut back on education efforts designed to encourage participation in recycling efforts. He fears that eventually will take a toll on the program's effectiveness, since 20 percent of the university town's households turn over every year. In Milwaukee, Engelbart says he's confident the city will find the funds to continue existing service even if state assistance is curtailed. But although Milwaukee has already paid for its trucks, "within five or six years we're going to have to upgrade our fleet, and we may hit a capital crisis," he adds.

Other communities could also be facing a future fiscal crunch to sustain the recycling programs they've now constructed. Solid-waste experts believe there are ways to make collection more efficient, but struggling to meet arbitrary recycling goals will make things even more expensive. A study by Seattle-based Skumatz Economic Research Associates found that California communities would need to spend 40 to 50 percent more per household to boost recycling enough to achieve the state's 50 percent mandate.

Other research suggests that currently viable recovery technologies may reach their limits when governments divert roughly 35 percent of solid waste streams. To go beyond that point, Ventura County's Martin and other innovative solid-waste managers think governments need to find ways to bolster market demand, perhaps by converting "carbohydrate energy" from food and paper residues into useful fuel and manufacturing feedstock. Until that happens, though, most communities will find it difficult to comply with state-mandated recycling targets.

In the meantime, city and county officials will have to do the best they can to keep recycling service up and running at least at current levels. "The die has been cast," observes Kathy Ball, the League of Wisconsin Municipalities assistant director. "We've got public expectations now that this is going to be continued."


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