Energy & Environment

Recycling's Silver Lining

It is always at the mercy of budget cuts in tight fiscal times, but new green industries might make recycling too valuable to cut.
by | June 25, 2012

A clear majority -- 83 percent -- of Wisconsin residents are happy with the state's pioneering 1989 law that mandates city and county recycling programs. So when Republican Gov. Scott Walker proposed repealing the mandate last year, the GOP-controlled Legislature quickly shrugged the idea off. They also dismissed Walker's plan to divert all $32 million the law gives to municipal recycling efforts, and spend it on economic development instead.

For all its popularity, recycling isn't immune when governors and legislators go looking for ways to close daunting budget deficits. Like Wisconsin -- which has already withheld $13 million this year from communities around the state -- Vermont balanced its 2009 budget with a one-time shift of $500,000 from its recycling program, and Pennsylvania diverted $15 million from its $44 million recycling fund to fill a 2008 budget gap. Today, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett has proposed cutting municipal recycling grants and related outlays by $8 million from last year's levels.

"States do that all the time -- under Democrats as well as Republicans," says recycling advocate Neil Seldman of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

Now Milwaukee and Madison city officials are challenging the Wisconsin cutbacks in court. Unless the funding is restored, city and county programs will be scrambling to keep curbside recycling collection efforts up and running. Milwaukee alone lost $1.5 million, and Madison is absorbing a $405,000 cut by tapping property tax revenues and slashing public outreach campaigns. This year, Madison skipped mailing annual recycling pick-up schedules, says George Dreckmann, the city's recycling coordinator. "It reduces participation and it's going to reduce diversion" of reusable materials otherwise tossed into garbage cans.

Funding cutbacks are hitting collection programs just as many communities are competing for new green industries. Recycling advocate Seldman is working with Reading, Pa., on attracting a small-scale plant that will employ a hundred workers to convert waste paper and cotton cloth into stationery, envelopes and file folders. The Bridgeport, Conn., development corporation is financing an enterprise that refurbishes and recycles mattresses. And last year, Austin, Texas, changed the name of its solid waste department to Austin Resource Recovery, and embraced a zero-waste strategy that treats the city's discarded material "as a resource that is recovered for a second life, rather than a waste stream destined for a landfill," says Bob Gedert, the agency's director.

Austin's plan envisions a time when recyclables will be collected on a weekly schedule instead of every two weeks -- while garbage service can be cut back to twice a month. Eventually, Austin plans to turn its landfill into a solar energy farm and eco-industrial park for attracting recycling businesses.

Despite the promise of a growing market, "I don't think recycling is a self-sustaining venture," cautions Lynn Rubinstein, the Northeast Recycling Coalition's executive director. Selling glass, aluminum, paper and other materials can cover labor, machinery and capital costs for processing recyclables, says Jennifer Semrau, the recycling specialist for Winnebago County, Wis. "But even in the best year, you don't make enough to cover all your collection expenses."

But Cathy Stepp, Gov. Walker's natural resources secretary, maintains that by now "recycling can and should stand on its own." She may have a point, too. If curbside collections fall off, recycling programs could miss out on profitable opportunities. For example, Indiana has four aluminum plants that reprocess recycled beer and soda cans. Yet the state's consumers throw $35 million worth of metal containers into landfills every year. Even with that ready-made market, Indiana closed a yawning 2009 budget deficit by freezing $5 million in yearly recycling grants funded by a 50-cent per ton tipping fee at landfills. And before that money was siphoned off, Indiana's recycling fund "was creating new green jobs while making crucial investments in our lagging recycling infrastructure," says Carey Hamilton, director of the Indiana Recycling Coalition. "We actually have manufacturers clamoring for more recycled materials, but we haven't seen any indication that the bulk of those dollars will come back."

And unless Milwaukee and Madison are triumphant in their lawsuit against the state, there is no indication Wisconsin officials intend to restore funding either. All in all, Wisconsin's state-local recycling partnership "has worked out well," says retired state Rep. Spencer Black, who sponsored the 1989 recycling law. "We created an industry with over 97,000 jobs." But without the grants, Milwaukee and other cities have proposed cutting recycling pickups to every six weeks (down from four or fewer), which they worry will affect recycling and diversion rates.

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