Forced Recycling Is a Waste

As New York City faces the possibility of painful cuts to its police and fire department budgets, environmentalists are bellyaching over garbage. Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposed budget for 2003 would temporarily suspend the city’s recycling of metal, glass and plastic, saving New Yorkers $57 million.

The city’s recycling program — like many others around the country — has long hemorrhaged tax dollars. Every mayor has tried to stop the waste since the program began in 1989, when local law 19 mandated the city to recycle 25% of its waste by 1994. “It is impossible to reach a mandated recycling level,” said Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in 1996, “unless you take all the people in New York, put them in prison, and force them to recycle.”

Back in 1992, Mayor David Dinkins tried to suspend the program for a year, but he continued to fund it when faced with an onslaught of criticism. Then in 1994 the Natural Resources Defense Council sued the Giuliani administration for not meeting the law’s mandate — and won. Mr. Giuliani was forced to bleed other parts of the budget to keep the program going.

City officials have tried to get around meeting the mandated rate by playing with the books. Such tactics are common in just about every city and state with mandated recycling rates. In New York, city officials counted recycling of construction and demolition debris along with household waste in an attempt to meet the required recycling rate. But in 1993 the court ruled that those materials don’t count. Currently, the city wants to count asphalt, millings and dirt from lot cleaning operations. Including these materials would inflate the rate from 17% to 23%, according to the city’s budget office.

Mr. Bloomberg wants to go a step further and end some recycling temporarily. He points out that this program is not saving resources. The city spends about $240 per ton to “recycle” plastic, glass, and metal, while the cost of simply sending waste to landfills is about $130 per ton.

You don’t need a degree in economics to see that something is wrong here. Isn’t recycling supposed to save money and resources? Some recycling does — when driven by market forces. Private parties don’t voluntarily recycle unless they know it will save money, and, hence, resources. But forced recycling can be a waste of both because recycling itself entails using energy, water and labor to collect, sort, clean and process the materials. There are also air emissions, traffic and wear on streets from the second set of trucks prowling for recyclables. The bottom line is that most mandated recycling hurts, not helps, the environment.

And despite all their efforts to recycle, much of what residents sort still ends up in the landfill. The Department of Sanitation says that about 40% of New York’s glass, metal and plastic waste is not of suitable quality for recycling, so it goes to the landfill. What’s wrong with that?

Americans seem to think it’s a sin to put trash in a landfill. New Yorkers might think that all landfills are like Staten Island’s Fresh Kills, but that malodorous dump site was designed in a different era, when public officials had different ideas about landfill design and without today’s technology.

Modern landfills are very different, as I discovered on a trip to a site in Charles City County, Va., that takes Big Apple garbage. It was so hidden that I got lost trying to find it. There were no smells and no visually unattractive views. I asked the locals for directions, but nearly no one knew it was even there. Finally, someone directed me to the entrance, which I had passed several times. Once on site, I couldn’t even see trash until reaching the top of the landfill, where New York City trash flowed down from a truck.

Despite protests from Virginia state officials, residents in communities that host landfills want New York City trash because they receive revenue from it. Virginia’s seven regional landfills employ hundreds of residents, paying out millions in annual wages and bringing in more than $500 million annually to the state. Landfill fees enabled Charles City County to build a courthouse and a school, while cutting property taxes by about a third.

The risks posed by these landfills are next to zero. Using Environmental Protection Agency data, one study found that 60% of the landfills in existence in 1991 pose a minute cancer risks of one in 10 billion over a 70-year lifetime. More than 80% pose a risk of cancer of less than one in a million — a level equivalent to the risk of getting cancer from drinking a half liter of wine or eating 40 tablespoons of peanut butter in a year’s time.

“You could do a lot better things in the world with $57 million,” says Mayor Bloomberg. Like rebuilding from the greatest catastrophe ever to befall New York. But first Mayor Bloomberg is going to have to battle the green lobby to eliminate his city’s wasteful recycling program.

Ms. Logomasini is director of risk and environmental policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.