Dear Umbra,

My friend has the notion that recycling programs lose money. Where does this come from? I can imagine situations where that could be the case, but in most cities there seems to be plenty of material being recycled to justify the collection infrastructure, etc. And surely there are markets for more recycled content than we currently produce. Why does the myth persist that recycling doesn’t make sense? And are there items that don’t pay for themselves?

Mike
Lexington, Ky.

Dearest Mike,

Cities promote and support recycling programs for two reasons: public demand and financial good sense. (In special, hippie-filled cities like mine, Seattle, recycling programs also meet municipal sustainability goals, but that’s kinda unusual.) If a recycling program fits those criteria, then the program as a whole will make sense.

It’s not that easy to pick the financial aspect out from the public-demand aspect. If your friend needs an example, simply point him or her to New York City, which in 2002 cut its recycling program in an attempt to reduce secondhand smoke in bars — no, no. Actually, Mayor Mike Bloomberg (R) cut the curbside recycling program in an attempt to ameliorate the city’s budget woes. Lo and behold, now the recycling program is slowly being reinstated. Stuffing the landfill didn’t save Bloomberg the $40 million he expected, although the debate on whether the program loses money continues. Public demand, however, has helped force bins back onto curbsides in the Big Apple.

The persistence of the recycling-doesn’t-make-sense myth is perplexing. We don’t have that same concern over garbage programs; when was the last time you argued with someone about whether city trash hauling should be continued? But as we’ll see over the course of this column (and others), people are highly suspicious of their local recycling programs. The myths circulate freely: that it’s all just thrown away, that there’s no market for products, that it’s a hoax. There’s a lot of suspicion, and a lot of indignation. Ignorance of the recycling process may breed these urban legends.

Haul in a day’s work for a recycling
truck.

Photo: King County.

The economics of recycling programs vary widely across the country. Land is stunningly expensive in my county — landfill expenses are high and landfill “tip fees” reflect this. (Yes, the fee for tipping things into a landfill is apparently called the “tip fee.”) In Nevada, tip fees may not be so high. The design of the recycling system also affects the cost. If a trucker picks up three separate containers at each house, that costs more than picking up a single can of trash. If you haul your own recyclables to the recycling center, that costs Trashville very little.

As you may deduce, it is quite possible that a recycling program costs a city more than its trash program. Does this mean the recycling program doesn’t make sense? No — recycling makes sense, for reasons you can read about in my other recycling columns.

Dumpily,
Umbra