This article first appeared in the Durham Herald-Sun.
Mandatory recycling programs don’t bother most people. But if you thought you were being forced to do something dumb or were getting ripped off—wouldn’t you be troubled? When it comes to municipal recycling in the Triangle, there are only two possible scenarios—either the things we recycle really are just garbage, or the city is helping big companies steal our labor and resources. Sound crazy? Bear with me.
Every billing cycle, you get the privilege of paying the city a recycling fee. Check your bill. It’s there. (Note: some cities build fees into property taxes.) Now, let’s suppose that the things you toss into the recycling bin really are just garbage. If it isn’t garbage – i.e. it has value to someone – they’ll be willing pay you for it (or at least collect it at no charge). But the situation is not so clear when it comes to recycling—because the city gets between you and willing buyers of your bottles and cans.
Or, look at it this way: we’re paying the city to haul things off in extra trucks. That means there are twice the number of trucks on the road (trash-plus-recycling), which means we double both the fuel consumption and pollution emissions, compared with garbage collection alone. At best, we’re using up one type of resource (oil) to save another (plastic). At worst we’re wasting money and trading garbage for pollution increases. (Nevermind the personal inconvenience of washing, sorting and lugging.)
With current fuel prices, things get worse. Obviously, it’s just plain expensive to fuel recycling trucks—and we pay for that. Still, it may nevertheless soon be cost-effective to recycle plastic bottles, since they’re made from petroleum. But when we get to that price-point, won’t it be cost-effective to strip-mine landfills of plastics or pay people to turn them in, rather than rely on all those diesel-spewing trucks? Given that energy conservation and air pollution are becoming bigger issues, it’s hard to see how cities can justify recycling. (Can you hear the protestors? “No oil for glass!”)
Which is scarcer? Landfill space or fuel? Prices say fuel. But suppose people just don’t like the idea that a plastic container might lie in the ground for a thousand years. It’s true: we don’t think of Cheerwine bottles as being artifacts for the museums of the future. But beyond that, what’s the problem? Landfills aren’t poisoning anyone.
Not even the EPA sees fit to regulate municipal solid waste disposal. Indeed, according to 30-year EPA veteran Dr. David Schnare: “EPA regulates the toxic stuff through its hazardous waste disposal regulations. Municipal waste isn’t hazardous, and the only regulations that apply are [landfill] siting, construction and air emissions regulations for methane. The EPA doesn’t regulate risks from these sites because the risks, if any, are undeserving of regulation.” With the advent of geotextile technologies, modern landfills are well able to contain leachate – the only significant landfill pollutant. Basically, you have a greater chance of being hit by a recycling truck than being harmed by a landfill.
Landfill companies have also learned to pack in much more garbage-per-square-yard than any time in history. According to environmental economist Daniel K. Benjamin, “Ted Turner’s flying D ranch outside Bozeman, Montana, could handle all of America’s trash for the next century—with 50,000 acres left over for his bison.” (Read: we’re never going to be ‘buried in garbage’). Apart from NIMBYism about the sight or smell, why are we worried about making continued use of landfills? After all, one person’s smelly landfill is another’s bread-n-butter.
Now, suppose those recyclables are valuable. If they are, why are we paying the city? The presence of value means a market will emerge without the city (or its fees). Maybe we should ask Raleigh, Durham and Cary why they are forcing us to use our time, resources and labor to benefit the companies they sell recyclables to. If cans are so valuable, what’s the city’s interest in recovering assets otherwise stranded at the dump? Isn’t that what the aluminum industry should be sorting out? (Pun intended.) Of course companies benefit from this whole arrangement, because they’re able (via the city) to shift the costs of recycling onto us! The city is complicit.
We should be more than a little troubled by these possibilities. Cities are using proceeds from valuable recyclables like aluminum to subsidize wasteful and stupid recycling like glass and paper. (One need only head to the beach to see there are no silicon shortages. Likewise, there are more trees in North America than at any time in recorded history, because the more paper we use, the more trees get planted.) But we should be more disturbed that cities are wasting our energy, time and money to benefit special interests. In either scenario – waste or theft – municipal recycling is no good to citizens. Sadly, city officials must only hide behind America’s quasi-religious fixation with everything “green” to get away with it.
Max Borders is a policy analyst for the Civitas Institute (nccivitas.org).