Recycling hasn't lived up to hype After 10 years, Md.'s program costs more than it returns


Each week, Maureen and Bob Keck collect their cans, rinse their bottles, bag their newspapers and -- on the appointed days -- haul them out to their Catonsville curb. So committed is Maureen Keck to recycling, she won't even throw away drink bottles at work.

"My guilt button is large," she says, "so I bring them home."

Curbside recycling thrives on the guilt and good intentions of hundreds of thousands of Marylanders like the Kecks. But a decade after the state began requiring such programs as a way to save both money and the environment, there is growing debate about the benefits.

There is little doubt that recycling costs Marylanders millions of dollars more each year than taking all of the state's garbage to the region's growing stock of cheap, privately run dumps.

And many argue that in return, taxpayers get few environmental benefits: The trees that recycling saves are crops, like corn or soybeans. The glass is only processed sand. And landfill space, once thought scarce, is plentiful.

"What keeps recycling going today is a false impression that recycling is good for the environment," says Ronald L. Mersky, editor of the Journal of Solid Waste Technology and Management.

By some measures, recycling is successful. Nationwide, 46 million tons of recyclables worth $3.7 billion were sold on commodities markets in 1996, says R. W. Beck, a national consulting firm. That year, Maryland produced 1.5 million tons of recyclables, state records show.

In Maryland's metropolitan areas, recycling is popular and almost universally available -- saving space in dumps, spurring green industries and reducing the consumption of raw materials, environmentalists say.

L Still, critics say the public doesn't know what it's buying.

Recyclers talk often of saving trees, for example, and paper makes up the bulk of curbside collections. But in the United States, the trees cut for paper are usually fast-growing softwoods that are raised as crops, harvested and replaced by saplings.

"Yes, you're saving trees. You're not saving the trees you think you're saving," says recycling expert Lynn Scarlett of the Reason Foundation, a think tank in Los Angeles. "You're not saving the redwood forests of California."

Recycling was supposed to save Maryland from "the garbage crisis," a term popularized in 1987 after the barge Mobro wandered the East Coast in search of a resting place for thousands of tons of Long Island, N.Y., garbage.

This highly publicized tale triggered fears of a coming shortage of dump space, of a future buried in garbage.

"Recycling is absolutely critical to our survival on this planet," Montgomery County environmentalist Bev Thoms told state legislators in 1988, using rhetoric typical for the time. "Without it, we will use up our resources and poison ourselves from the pollution of our own waste."

Legislators act

Legislators responded in 1988 with the Maryland Recycling Act, requiring metropolitan counties to recycle at least one of every five tons of garbage. For rural counties, where curbside programs are impractical because homes are spread out, the standard is about one of every seven tons.

Since government recycling programs became widespread in 1992, Marylanders have recycled nearly 9 million tons of waste. About 3.2 million tons came from government curbside and drop-off programs, the rest from businesses recycling privately.

Both types of recycling have grown to the extent that nearly one-third of the 5 million tons of garbage produced in Maryland each year is recycled.

Those totals are enough to make state Sen. Brian E. Frosh, the Montgomery County Democrat who crafted Maryland's law, declare victory.

"It's been extremely successful," he says. "A million and a half tons is being taken out of the waste stream [each year] and being turned into useful products again."

But Frosh and other supporters concede that recycling has been costlier than expected. His 1988 bill predicted significant cost savings, but now he says, "I wish it were clearer."

Environmentalists based their rosy financial forecasts on a key assumption -- that dump space was disappearing, and that scarcity would drive up dump fees.

But only government-run dumps were becoming scarce as politicians became increasingly wary of building them near populated areas.

A 1994 decision by the Supreme Court deregulated the trash industry, prompting companies to build huge dumps -- called mega-fills -- in Pennsylvania, Virginia and other states with cheap land. Even with shipping costs included, the mega-fills were cheaper -- and thanks to tougher federal regulation, safer -- than the dumps governments ran for decades.

Cheap dump space

Pennsylvania alone has dump and incinerator capacity for 200 million tons of garbage a year -- enough for all the nation's garbage. And the 300-acre King George County Landfill in Virginia charges just $33 a ton to bury garbage from Howard and Anne Arundel counties -- about half what they charged at their dumps just a few years ago.

"There's no landfill shortage," says Rob Arner, a Northern Virginia environmental planner. "That was a myth."

From 1991 through last summer, Baltimore City and Maryland's metropolitan counties -- Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Carroll, Harford, Howard, Prince George's and Montgomery -- recycled about 2.5 million tons through curbside and other residential programs, records show. The cost was about $250 million.

Today, the King George County Landfill could bury all those recyclables in just 27 acres.

The cost: $83 million.

It is impossible to calculate exactly how much Marylanders could save without recycling. Dump costs fluctuate, as does the value of the bottles, cans and newspapers. Without recycling, garbage trucks also would fill up faster, requiring more trips.

But researchers generally agree that recycling is more expensive than throwing trash into a dump. The debate focuses on how much more -- and whether the extra cost buys something worthwhile, such as cleaner air or water.

A typical residential recycling program costs from 10 percent to 20 percent more than tossing everything in a dump, says researcher Charlotte Frola, co-author of a 1995 study by the Solid Waste Association of North America.

The Reason Foundation, another leader in studying the issue, estimates that recycling adds $12 to $18 per household to

garbage costs each year. That estimate suggests that the Baltimore area, with nearly 1 million households, could save $11 million a year by eliminating recycling.

Recycling advocates often blame high costs on the erratic markets for old bottles, cans and newspapers. But studies find that is a small factor in recycling costs.

The biggest factor is collection, which accounts for three-quarters of costs in most places, say researchers. Also, most government garbage-handling costs are fixed, meaning there are few savings when recyclers such as the Kecks reduce the garbage they produce.

Each Tuesday, a truck visits Oak Drive in Catonsville to collect garbage set out by the Kecks and their neighbors. That truck could pick up all types of garbage and take it to an incinerator in Baltimore or a dump in York, Pa.

Instead, the truck returns each Friday for recyclables -- a visit that carries labor, fuel and other costs. It also has a smaller capacity on its recycling run because cans and bottles cannot be compacted.

The recyclables -- waste that is among the least likely to create environmental hazards at an incinerator or landfill -- go to a warehouse just north of Cockeysville for sorting.

How trash is reprocessed

There, a two-story machine with a conveyor belt separates steel, aluminum, glass and plastic. Eight Baltimore County jail inmates work on the machine, earning $5 a day for removing plastic bags and sorting three colors of glass and three types of plastic by hand.

In another room, a dozen more inmates work on a similar machine, sorting cardboard and newspapers from junk mail.

It is noisy, laborious work as shards of glass, crushed cola bottles and magazines speed by on conveyor belts. Even so, one-quarter is sent to a landfill as worthless "residue."

The rest ends up in piles on the warehouse floor, where trucks pick it up for shipment to plants all over the nation. There, the recyclables are fashioned into such products as carpet, beer bottles or gift boxes.

Paper, which is heavy and easy to collect, is the most common recyclable. About 115 tons come to the warehouse each day, say officials of the Maryland Environmental Service, which runs the facility.

Hand-sorting yields 30 tons of newsprint, worth $38 a ton, each day. A Georgia mill turns that paper into clean, white newsprint. Sorting also produces about five tons of cardboard, worth $75 a ton to a South Carolina mill making new cardboard.

The remaining 80 tons is mixed paper, a low grade. One-third is shipped overseas to South Korea, Indonesia and other Asian nations where trees are scarce and paper quality low. The rest goes to domestic plants.

Critics see waste

In all that activity, critics see waste -- extra trucks for collection, extra labor for sorting plastics, extra fuel for shipping old paper thousands of miles to Asia.

They also argue that if recycling costs more, it must use more resources -- and be worse for the environment -- than simply taking the cans, bottles and newspapers to the dump.

By contrast, private industry has been recycling profitably for years, turning old cans into new ones, car bodies into steel beams.

Aluminum, which requires tremendous amounts of energy to produce from raw bauxite, had a vigorous recycling market long before the government stepped in. It fetches $1,200 a ton on the open market.

But the price of even the most lucrative recyclables rarely exceeds the cost of collecting them in a house-by-house program. Glass, for example, is worth just $30 a ton, and only if it's clear. Government programs often pay to get rid of mixed, broken glass.

"The market will tell us which products in the household garbage are worth enough to go the extra cost to recycle," says Kenneth Chilton, head of the Center for the Study of American Business at Washington University in St. Louis.

"I get particularly amused if I'm out in a desert area and they're trying to recycle glass."

Critics of recycling argue that if the government wants to solve environmental problems, the money could be better spent by stripping lead paint from homes, cleaning up contaminated industrial sites or keeping dangerous household wastes out of storm drains.

Environmentalists agree that those problems need more attention. But most also rally to the defense of recycling.

Economic arguments, they say, miss the point of recycling: to help the environment by saving energy and raw materials such as trees, iron and oil.

Manufacturing from virgin materials, they argue, causes pollution and other ecological damage that proves costly to human health and welfare.

Advocates also credit recycling with teaching worthwhile lessons about how individual actions affect the planet. And compared to tossing garbage in a dump, recycling involves a web of workers and entrepreneurs -- each of whom contribute to the economic vitality of Maryland.

"It doesn't save us money, but it does help with the life of the landfill, and it does help with the ecology of the whole nation," says Baltimore Public Works Director George G. Balog, who figures that recycling costs the city at least an extra $1 million a year.

Adds Richard Keller, recycling chief for the quasi-public Maryland Environmental Service, "Assuming it costs more, but the public is willing to pay that, what's the problem? They feel like they're doing something for the environment."

But the critics' focus on cost has begun to change how recycling programs are run.

D.C. bows out

The District of Columbia, citing the cost of recycling, discontinued its curbside program last year. Other communities have tinkered with their programs in hopes of saving money.

New York City's careful study of its recycling program has helped push costs lower for the past several years.

Studies suggest making government recycling programs more efficient by changing collection schedules, improving technology and rewriting garbage contracts so taxpayers save money when trash volumes fall. Many governments also buy recycled products -- and urge their constituents to do the same -- in hopes of stimulating the market.

Still recycling -- with its high costs and uncertain environmental record -- doesn't look much like advocates predicted a decade ago.

Recycling "probably has some marginal benefits," says Scarlett of the Reason Foundation. "But we're certainly not talking about saving the planet."

Pub Date: 5/25/98

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