• Article

The Great Illusion

Curbside Recycling

Millions of Americans pay to put their recycling bins out for pick-up each week unaware that some recyclables end up in a landfill with the rest of the garbage.

Email to a Friend

In Neosho, Mo., a proposed curbside-recycling program was tabled in September 2009 thanks to the crumbling market for prices paid for recycled paper, plastics, aluminum and steel.

“No one is taking the stuff,” Neosho City Manager Jan Blase said then. Plus, Blase added, there’s no certainty that the city’s residents would get what they pay for. “Whether it would actually end up in the recycling system, I can’t say.”

Berkeley, Calif., is proposing a 20 percent increase in the fees that it charges residents for garbage collection and recycling (approximately $4 extra per month). Meanwhile, the town of Candia, N.H., is running out of room to store its stockpiled recyclables. So are residents of Atlanta. In Pella, Iowa, about 1,000 tons of recyclable lumber were sent to the trash incinerator in 2009.

These are a few of the dozens of horror stories that were triggered by the dramatic drop in late 2008 and early 2009 in the demand for recycled materials—paper, plastics, cardboard and metals. During this time, the prices for U.S. recyclables fell by 50 percent to 70 percent, according to Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries. A major factor in that: Chinese demand for recyclable U.S. paper and cardboard plummeted. China is the largest importer of those materials in the world.

Whenever the market slows for recyclable materials, municipalities must adjust with price hikes or changes to their curbside recycling service. When there are fewer buyers, recyclables often are dumped into landfills, warehouses, junkyards and incinerators, says Jennifer Schwab, who is director of sustainability for Sierra Club’s Green Home program.

Indeed, that’s exactly what’s happening in many cities and towns.

“The hope is that eventually the markets turn around and that the material is sold, but I have heard of instances where it gets landfilled, because a community doesn’t have the demand or the space or the company to deal with it,” says Gene Jones, who is executive director of Southern Waste Information Exchange—a nonprofit center for information about recycling waste.

In other words, you’re paying for a service that is not being rendered and instead is being resolved in the opposite way—recyclables dumped into the garbage—from what the service intends. This is unacceptable.

Curb Costs

Curb Costs

MONEY BINS. Of course, not all U.S. cities have curbside-recycling programs. According to Environmental Protection Agency, just under 60 percent of the population has their recyclables picked up.

And the price of recycling varies from place to place. When such a service is in place, it costs municipalities from $160 to $206 per ton on average, depending on how efficient a program is and how far trucks have to go between residential curbside and processing plants. The plan is that cities sell recyclables and make money to help offset the cost of the recycling program.

A portion of the cost also is covered in most cities by general garbage and waste-management fees or via a tax of some type. Even if you don’t see an obvious “recycling” line item on your garbage or property tax bill, you should know that it’s not free. All consumers who have access to a curbside recycling program are paying for it—anywhere from 50 cents a month to $10 a month—in many cases regardless of whether it is being used. These fees often are rolled into your garbage bill, so it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how much of your bill pays for recycling. Residents on average pay $10 to $25 in monthly waste-management fees.

For the past decade or so, recycling programs have been a revenue stream for cities—in some cases even turning a profit. In 2008, for example, Berkeley made $1 million from the sale of recyclables.

Back to Article