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[greenyes] Economic Pressures on Recycling Programs

Wayne observes that:
"...There have been numerous debates about the overall health and vitality of recycling
programs and what we can do to make them more efficient and effective to
ensure their survival during budget crises. But it appears that even
when our budgetary backs are against the wall, as has been the case in
the last 2-3 years, local governments have not offered up recycling
programs as sacrificial lambs; or else they have and the elected
officials have chosen not to dismantle the programs. Whether it is
bureaucratic protectionism, political realism or simply good program
management that has allowed recycling programs to remain in place, it
gives me hope that they have now become institutionalized ..."
I am not as certain as Wayne that the gods smile down on us for two reasons:

1. I'm on the road this week and don't have access to my files. But, although Wayne hadn't gotten any responses to his query about threats to cut recycling programs other than the prominent mention of New York City, the facts are less rosy, albeit not entirely conclusive one way or the other.

On the one hand, there are literally dozens of cities which have aggressively considered recycling curtailment, although, on the other hand, very few have actually which have actually gone forward in this cycle to formally end their curbside programs. Essentially, it appears that the intense pressure that began to arise for awhile never reached the boiling point because we lucked out this time in terms of macro economic conditions not of our making. The recession ended and recovery began and strong export markets insured that we didn't have a commodity cycle trough, pulling our bacon out of the fire just in time.

2. But, I am very concerned that we may miss what may really be going down in terms of our long term prognosis if we draw a breadth of relief from having largely escaped the Grim Reaper this time. I say this because the residue of these threats is continuing pressure to bring costs down as the price of keeping recycling going. If those cost pressures were levened by an insistence that cost cutting not significantly impact performance, I wouldn't mind, but that is not what is happening in many cases. That is to say, cost savings are being implemented without even setting up the mechanisms to measure deterioration in performance, nonetheless triggers to restore programs changes if the follow on shows recovery falters.

That has created a climate in which a very substantial number of public works departments are willing to consider the new shape of recycling proposed by Waste Management, a company whose interests, albeit legitimate, are diametrically opposed to increased recovery, which threatens their monopoly power built on tight landfill supplies.

That entails biweekly collection and single stream collection w/o enforceable restrictions on increased residue and downgrading. The most recent studies by Sound Resources shows biweekly collection reduced diversion by about 240 pounds per household per year in King County, Washington, if memory serves, and then, Lisa has older data on that problem too. Now I hasten to add that there certainly can be cases where well designed efforts in the right setting can make bi-weekly work, but that is not what is happening today, where many programs are moving to biweekly without testing and evaluation to insure it does not get rolled out if it doesn't produce substantially equivalent recovery.

It also entails unchecked single stream (SS) processing without limits on increases in residues. Again, that is not to say that SS is never appropriate, but only that its propensity for abuse demands strict controls. A GAA study found residues close to 30%, I recall, if one does not count as recycling sending crushed unusable glass back to the landfill as daily cover.

I am aware that attempts to paper over this problem with claims that SS is good because it increases recovery. But that is based upon highly deceptive and demonstrably untrue claims that do not do credit to their proponents' credibility. I say this because the showings omit to mention that the changeover to SS was also accompanied by a conversion from 3 bins to carts. Controlled tests in St.Paul -- the only controlled tests, I should add -- show that it is the carts (which can be added to almost any program w/o going to SS) that increase diversion, not SS. People do prefer wheeled covered carts to three uncovered bins. But, that has nothing to do with single stream. Indeed in that St. Paul study, dual stream carts achieved, if memory serves, about 30% better recovery than single stream carts.

Quality declines at the MRF with SS will undoubtedly be mirrored in higher yield losses at the intermediate processors and end users, currently ranging from 10%-20% on average.

Look at those numbers and put them all together. Look at the eroding recycling performance we have seen since 1997. The price of "improving" our economics may be substantial reductions in overall diversion, and our sending half of what we do separate back to the landfill, something that would be devasting to our public support were it highly publicized as we have to assume our dear friends at the Reason Foundation and NY Times will be tempted to do.

Also, those export supported prices come at their own price, namely at the cost of decimating our domestic processing capacity, creating future vulnerabilities that may come back to haunt us.

It is for these reasons that I believe our real economic payoff to sustain recycling -- and effective recycling -- lies not in imprudent chiseling away corrosively at our programs but in redoubling our efforts to insure that the present massive subsidies to our competition, landfilling, be eliminated. That would increase the cost of disposal to more than $60 per ton, compared to the typical cost today closer to $20/ton against which recycling, other than high grade paper and non-ferrous metals, cannot compete. Eliminating those grossly flawed rules would also require that the organic fraction -- 60% of what is landfilled today -- be kept out of the ground, and that could mean source separating food scraps and unrecycled paper for composting, which could bring our current 30% recovery over 75%. That is to say, zero waste (or at least something reasonably close to it) need not be a dream that we pass along to our children but a life-invigorating triumph that we include in our bequest.

Nonethleless, Wayne, I do think that you have raised an excellent question for all of us to consider.

I am not, however, nearly as sanguine about the future, as your note suggests.

In any event, this issue definitely warrents more systematic evaluation. I look forward to hearing other analyses to consider.

Peter Anderson
4513 Vernon Blvd. Suite 15
Madison, WI 53705
(608) 231-1100 / Fax 233-0011

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