Monday, October 17, 2005

Efficiency of recycling

Today's Valley News Dispatch has an article about problems with recycling. Unfortunately some of the conclusions reached in the article are very short-sighted.

Small towns like Tarentum stop curb-side recycling when their populations drop below the level at which Pennsylvania mandates it. The rationale stated in the article is:
But recycling -- especially curbside recycling -- isn't efficient and costs taxpayers according to most haulers, municipal officials, and researchers.
As if the haulers were paying municipalities for the privilege of carrying the unsorted trash so that the municipalities and taxpayers could show a profit!

The article states that municipalities were told that they would make money on recycling, but that they never did make money. I was not here when the case was made for recycling in Pennsylvania, so I don't know what was actually said. I know in communities in other states the advocates of recycling have been very open about the fact that the transition to a recycling economy would be a bumpy road, and that there would be times when supplies of recyclable materials would need to wait for markets to develop. Communities succeed with recycling programs when the municipal leadership is ready to invest energy in hunting down markets for their recyclables.

This article judges recycling as inefficient on the basis of very short-term measurements. The bottom line for the municipalities is that they did not make money on recycling, which is a fair criticism if the carrot of profits dangled before them were the only justification for recycling. But municipalities do many things that do not generate profits, such as police protection, or the maintenance of streets and parks. None of these activities turn a profit for most municipalities, and it would be unfair to judge their efficiency on this kind of profit-based analysis.

Under a longer-term view, the true inefficiency is in the wasteful way our whole society uses costly resources once before burying them. Can someone explain to me the efficiency of mining bauxite, making aluminum, transforming it into packaging, using the product and then placing packaging at the curbside, and paying someone to truck it to a landfill that will eventually fill up, so that the cost of the next product I buy in aluminum packaging can include the cost of making and processing new aluminum? Where is the efficiency in pumping petroleum out of the ground, making it into many forms of plastic packaging that people place at the curbsides to be picked up, paying someone to truck it to a landfill that will eventually fill up, so that the cost of the next plastic product I buy can include the cost of making and processing new plastic?

If the current recycling laws and municipal recycling systems do not work, maybe we need a better way to think about how our society will reduce waste and reuse and recycle materials to deal responsibly with the world that has been entrusted to us.

File under : , ,

No comments: