Is recycling disposable?
As local government revenues continue to shrink, city and county leaders are searching for ways to balance their budgets, often by scaling back the services they provide to their residents. Curbside recycling is one of the many services scrutinized during financial hard times, but few officials are willing to trash it. “Recycling is competing with other big policy issues, but it’s a service that people have come to expect, and they would be angry if it disappeared,” says David Robinson, recycling coordinator for Philadelphia.
Recycling coordinators in cities big and small, with recycling rates high and low, say the same thing: Their residents want curbside recycling, and they expect their local officials to make sure they get it. “I joke that if we eliminated the curbside program as a cost-cutting measure, a mob would descend on City Hall and hang me from the flag pole,” says Mark Bowers, solid waste program manager for Sunnyvale, Calif. “It’s not too far from the truth, I think.”
Benefits support growth; pace is slowing
Unlike other government-subsidized services, such as drinking water and wastewater treatment, recycling does not produce readily visible benefits, making it an easy target for cuts. Nevertheless, the economic and environmental benefits are real.
A study last year by the Alexandria, Va.-based National Recycling Coalition found that the recycling industry employs 1.1 million people nationwide, generating an annual payroll of $37 billion and grossing $236 billion in annual sales. Those figures translate into a substantive revenue stream for local governments. Furthermore, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has presented results of studies demonstrating that recycling saves natural resources and energy.
Because of those benefits, curbside recycling continues to grow in the United States, albeit much more slowly than it did in the boom times of the late 1980s and early 1990s. According to Jerry Powell, editor of Resource Recycling magazine, more than two dozen U.S. communities — including Tampa, Fla.; Nashville, Tenn.; and San Diego — have launched new curbside programs or expanded existing ones in the past year alone.
At the same time, seven programs with low participation in Alabama, Kentucky and Texas ceased operations. This year, cities such as Baltimore and Albuquerque, N.M., are rearranging or cutting back their schedules to better consolidate pickups.
Integration can help keep costs in check
To help their curbside programs get off the ground and thrive, local governments are relying on a variety of tools. For example, recycling coordinators are integrating recycling into their solid waste management systems, emphasizing public education and outreach, and establishing long-term contracts to hedge against the sometimes wild swings in recycling markets.
In 1990, Baltimore County, Md., integrated curbside recycling into its solid waste program by substituting one trash day with one recycling day. For each of 230,000 households, the county took away one of two weekly trash pickups and added once-a-week curbside pickup of recyclables.
The move held the county’s collection costs roughly in check, says Charlie Reighart, recycling coordinator for the county. “A program like ours is insulated somewhat from the charge that recycling is an expensive proposition,” he notes.
“We’ve stuck by the decision [to remove the second trash collection day] and never looked back,” Reighart says. Today, the county’s combined rate for commercial and residential recycling is approximately 40 percent.
Like Baltimore County, Madison, Wis., operates its curbside recycling as part of an integrated collection system. “The city collects everything, so we can look at our whole system at once,” says George Dreckman, the city’s recycling coordinator.
By using the same trucks to handle trash pickup as it does to handle recycling pickup, Madison has been able to eliminate six garbage trucks and the costs of owning and operating them. According to Dreckman, communities that operate recycling separately from other waste collection activities — or those that privatize that part of their systems — do not realize those savings.
Integrated programs have other payoffs, as Bowers discovered in a detailed analysis of Sunnyvale’s costs for curbside collection and other elements of the city’s waste management system. In evaluating the program’s performance, Bowers looked at the cost of collecting and processing materials, the revenues from the sale of materials, and the impact of diversion on tipping fees and landfill charges. The city’s net diversion costs are $128 per ton for curbside recyclables; $118 per ton for yard trimmings; and $38 per ton for cardboard.
Sunnyvale’s source separation programs — including curbside and yard trimmings collections and mixed-waste processing at the city’s materials recovery facility — are necessary for the city to surpass California’s 50 percent diversion requirements, Bowers says. As a result, curbside recycling is a fixture, protected from the cuts that plague financially tight times.
Outreach must hit the mark
Local governments that struggle to boost curbside recycling rates often attribute their difficulties to lack of staff energy, a lack of commitment to increasing participation rates over the long term and inconvenient service for residents. According to David Robinson, recycling coordinator for Philadelphia’s Streets Department, outreach also affects a program’s performance.
Like Baltimore County, Philadelphia has provided curbside recycling for more than 10 years, yet its residential recycling rate has never surpassed 7 percent. Robinson attributes that, in part, to an outreach program that had historically failed to garner attention. “You need an exciting program, not just brochures and door hangers,” he notes.
Robinson’s office launched a new outreach campaign in March to grab residents’ attention. Using television, radio and print advertising, the campaign urges residents to comply with the city’s 1987 ordinance requiring participation in the recycling program.
Robinson is optimistic that the advertising — combined with improvements in collection efficiency and customer service, will bring about the behavioral changes he seeks. While the city’s goal is to reach a double-digit recycling rate in three years, Robinson’s goal is for the city to reach three times the current rate in that time.
Riding out the market shifts
Although some communities measure recycling success by participation rates, many base their judgment on economic performance. The economics of curbside recycling are subject to unpredictable market swings, and, as a result, a recycling program that makes money one year may lose money the next. By signing long-term contracts with processors, local governments can moderate the ups and downs.
In Baltimore, city crews collect commingled recyclables from approximately 203,000 households. Those materials are processed by private firms that have recently signed long-term contracts with the city.
As of March 2002, Baltimore received $11.50 per ton of mixed paper, which includes corrugated containers and newsprint, from its paper processor. The city paid $11.50 per ton to another processor to handle the city’s glass, metals and plastics. (It is a coincidence that the figures, which are adjusted quarterly, are currently the same, says Dale Thompson, chief of solid waste education and enforcement for the city.) Because the city collects more fiber tonnage than it does mixed containers, it earns a net revenue on the sale of recyclables.
According to Thompson, the city’s contracts are structured to ensure that recycling is never more expensive than disposal. The agreements dictate that the city will never pay more than $34 per ton to process the recyclables, which is the amount it costs the city to dispose of a ton of garbage at the nearby waste-to-energy facility. “With these new contracts, recycling is helping us with the budget for the first time,” Thompson says. “It will help us in prolonging all of the services the city offers.”
Other local governments ensure net revenue by limiting the types of material they collect. For example, Albuquerque collects office paper, newspaper, corrugated containers, steel and aluminum cans, and HDPE and PET plastics at the curb; but residents who want to recycle glass must take their bottles to one of 15 drop-off locations around the city. “We take a conservative outlook,” says Will Hoffman, training specialist for the city’s Solid Waste Management Department. “We only collect materials curbside with stable, sustainable markets.”
By diligently following that approach, the city has kept its recycling fee under $2.00 per month per household, Hoffman says. (That figure represents a 30 percent increase over the original fee established more than 10 years ago.) The city diverts approximately 20 percent of its waste stream, and Hoffman expects that volume to remain steady.
Although Albuquerque is comfortable with selective collection, the cost-control method is not feasible for every community. For example, cities required to meet local or state diversion levels usually need to collect materials such as glass and certain grades of paper, even if markets for those materials are poor.
As communities work to ensure growth of their curbside recycling programs, coordinators are hoping for state and federal help — especially in developing markets for the sale of recycled material and in developing consumer outreach and education programs. According to Kate Krebs, executive director for the National Recycling Coalition, the federal government’s buy recycled policy will ensure a market to some degree. However, she notes that help most likely will come in the form of voluntary initiatives, such as those promoted by the National Electronic Product Stewardship Initiative (NEPSI). Organized by the Center for Clean Products and Clean Technologies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, NEPSI brings public and private stakeholders together to develop solutions for collecting, reusing and recycling electronic equipment.
Even as they wait for new markets to develop, local governments will continue to field demands by residents for recycling services. For communities in which recycling remains viable, integration, education and long-term contracting are the tools of success.
Kivi Leroux Miller is a freelance environmental writer based in Lexington, N.C.