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Let's see what those disparaging America's rate of recycling as "too high" either get completely wrong or fail to understand. You can read recent commentary suggesting that the recycling rate is too high here, here and here.
The number one complaint is that it costs more to recycle some categories of waste than to put them into a landfill. What the critics fail to comprehend is that, unlike a couple of generations ago when most landfills were owned and run by local governments, today most are run by profit-making enterprises such as Waste Management Inc. and Republic Services Inc. which haul some 80 percent of the nation's refuse. Those enterprises developed their large centralized landfills for the purpose of keeping down their disposal costs.
Since the private waste disposal industry has organized its infrastructure around cheap landfill disposal, it's no wonder that landfilling seems like the most cost-effective option. It follows that if we Americans had built a waste infrastructure with the goal of zero waste, as Germany did, our infrastructure would naturally have delivered lower costs for recycling than it does.
The Germans landfill about 1 percent of their waste compared to America's 68 percent. Germans recycle about 70 percent of their waste and burn almost all the rest to produce energy. Americans recycle about 25 percent of their waste and burn about 7 percent.
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Consider this analogy. You can make your house energy-efficient in two ways: You can build it to be energy-efficient in the first place or, you can add energy-efficient features later on. Which do you think would be more cost-effective?
That's what we've been facing with the boom in recycling. We are retrofitting a system designed for cheap landfilling rather than building a system designed for cheap recycling (which ought to be our goal).
But we must also consider that the narrowly defined cost of landfilling waste does not take into account the long-term costs of monitoring and mitigating damage to soil and water from closed landfills far into the future. Private landfill operators are responsible for what happens for the first 30 years. After that, taxpayers pick up the bill. But only if officials decide to. Otherwise, the cost to human and animal health and the loss of value for properties affected is simply absorbed by those unlucky enough to live or work near a closed landfill.
Now, this is important: Current landfill technology which lines waste pits will not keep pollutants from leaking out forever. In the long run, whatever goes into landfills will eventually seep out with rainwater or sink into the soil below once the lining deteriorates.
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Finally, landfills are a source of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, produced by rotting organic matter in the waste. Some of that methane is being captured and burned as fuel. But some of it is released into the atmosphere where it is driving climate change.
When we say that landfilling is cheaper, what we really mean is that landfilling is cheaper for us--not for those who come after us who will have to clean up the mess that keeps on giving.
The howls over the costs of recycling tend to reappear periodically when commodity prices sink as they have done so dramatically in the last year.
That's because recycled materials such as paper, plastic and metals compete with newly harvested or mined materials. When commodity prices are high, recycled material is in demand because it is cost-competitive with virgin materials. During such periods nobody seems to complain about the supposed burdensome costs of recycling because recycled materials are fetching such healthy prices. (Consequently, at such times the nation's editorial pages tend to be silent on the topic of trash.)
When prices are low, the recyclers complain that they cannot earn enough for their recycled materials which must compete with low-priced virgin material being dumped on the market by suppliers desperate for cash. (Predictably, the nation's editorial pages start to take a closer look at trash when this is the case.)
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But just like forestry, oil and gas and mining companies and the manufacturers who rely on their raw materials, recyclers ought to have business plans that take into account the full commodity price cycle. Weyerhaeuser Company, the forestry giant, doesn't just close its doors when wood product prices are low. It has a plan for getting through to the next upswing.
While there is room for debate about what materials are currently most cost-effective and environmentally important to recycle, that should not distract us from the goal of creating a cradle-to-cradle society, that is, one in which all products are designed to be converted into other materials or products at the end of their useful lives. The consequence of such design is practically zero waste.
Of course, it's no wonder that waste haulers are not particularly interested in a zero landfill goal since it would leave their existing landfills without customers.
But one simple policy change could make recycling much more attractive, even in times of low commodity prices. Tax trash. Tax anything that is dumped in a landfill. The higher the tax, the more likely someone will figure out how to 1) minimize waste in the first place and 2) recycle what waste remains more efficiently.
Any mention of a tax on trash would undoubtedly cause the lobbyists for waste haulers to darken the skies over Washington, state capitols or city halls where the mention was made. But that doesn't make a trash tax any less of a good idea as a way to get us all focused on the real goal: less trash, more recycling, and, with what we cannot currently recycle, energy generation using best practices.
By Kurt Cobb
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Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and author of the peak oil-themed thriller Prelude. He speaks and writes frequently on energy and the environment and…