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Recycling Assumptions Mostly Garbage
Bill Danielson and Julian Ku • May 1993

Though most Yale students would admit that the environmental movement has its radical elements, the vast majority does not consider pervasive programs like recycling controversial. For instance, between 1991 and 1992, recycling at Yale increased by 400%. The wisdom and utility of recycling and the Green Cup agenda have generally been accepted without questioning or resistance.

Does recycling actually save the world? An April 7 Yale Daily News editorial praised the Green Cup program for encouraging recycling, and represents what most students consider to be true. “Everybody wants to save the world. If Yale students can be convinced that recycling is the right thing to do and not terribly difficult, they will be willing to recycle.” Dogmatic beliefs concerning the state of the environment are not supported by economic and scientific evidence.

In fact, analysis of Yale’s recycling program shows that the Green Cup has far to go before it saves the world. Recycling costs a fiscally-strapped Yale thousands of dollars a year, and still does not accomplish many environmental goals. Often, recycling is unnecessary and even counterproductive. The erroneous assumptions widely held by the Yale community lead to the ill-advised support of a dubiously successful venture.

Green Cup: A Money Loser
Connecticut state law mandates recycling. The law requires both groups and individuals to recycle. In accordance with this law, landlords must insure that their tenants have facilities for recycling. In a setting such as a business or a university, the institution’s administration must facilitate compliance with this mandatory recycling statute. Yale’s recycling program serves such a role, according to University Recycling Coordinator C.J. May. The recycling of nine categories of solid waste is required: newspaper, metal food and drink containers, glass food and drink containers, white office paper, corrugated cardboard, scrap metal, waste oil, lead-acid batteries and leaves.

Separating nine different types of solid waste from the garbage to be recycled is required by law, but the university goes beyond its legal obligation with programs such as the Green Cup and the ubiquitous publicity concerning related matters such as energy and water conservation in the residential colleges. All of these extraneous programs extend beyond the minimum requirement set by the state, and cost Yale money.

In accordance with recycling laws, Yale’s aluminum cans, newspaper and cardboard are sent to Perrotti Kensington Automated Material Handling. White office paper is delivered to Newhallville Recycling Inc. in North Haven, where it is cleaned and then sold to the plants which will do the actual processing, some of them as far away as Canada.

Moral justifications for recycling are given every day by all kinds of earth-lovers, from earnest kindergarteners to the vice president, but claims of profitability remain suspect. Theoretically, May believes that on a large scale recycling could be profitable. If everyone recycled and was able to sell his refuse rather than pay someone to haul it away, recycling would make people money and be an unquestionably profitable business. Appeals to altruism or arm-twisting about the “moral imperative” of “loving the Earth, your mother” would be wholly unnecessary. But recycling is clearly not profitable, and thus the moral campaigns are necessary.

What the university gains in avoiding tipping fees (for the removal of garbage to local landfills) and fines from the state is lost in the costs of the extra employees and the extra time needed to have a functional university-wide program. To dump garbage at the New Haven Landfill costs $98 per ton. The Wallingford dump charges $70 a ton, but would end up costing just as much with the addition of energy costs and extra wages to take garbage the extra distance. It might appear that Yale would make money by selling refuse to recycling companies rather than having to pay to put it in a landfill. For example, Yale receives $40 per ton to recycle newspaper. To throw away that newspaper would cost $75. Thus, the university is ahead $115 for every ton of newspaper that is recycled rather than deposited in a landfill. In 1992, Yale had a cost avoidance of approximately $4000 for newspaper recycling alone.

This “profit,” however, fails to take into account all of the additional expenses of recycling. Last year Yale’s total “profit” was approximately $30,000 before subtracting expenses. Such expenses include: publicity, the extra labor needed to collect recyclables on Old Campus and the hiring of professionals such as May. These additional costs devour all of the profits.

May appreciates the need to make recycling economically viable. “Being truly green means recognizing the green in dollars as well as the green in forests,” May said. However, May admits that currently recycling at Yale is not economically profitable, nor is it likely to make money anytime soon. Yale is required to recycle by law, but economic justifications ring hollow in light of the figures. Recycling has no economic efficacy in this situation.

Though Yale’s Green Cup organizers admit that the Yale Recycling program costs Yale money, they argue that the environmental benefits of recycling outweigh the financial costs. Additionally, they point out that Yale must obey Connecticut’s law mandating 25% recycling or pay large fines to the state.
Connecticut’s law draws upon a philosophy of solid waste management best articulated in the 1992 Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (better known as the Baucus Act) in Congress. The act sets up a four-level solid waste hierarchy that prioritizes different techniques of managing solid waste, taking into account environmental and economic considerations.

The hierarchy places source reduction (i.e. reducing packaging materials, conservation) first, followed by recycling, then incineration and finally landfill dumping. This somewhat arbitrary system has questionable economic and environmental value. As John Schall, visiting fellow at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, admits in his working paper justifying the Tri-State area recycling programs:

“The implicit understanding behind this hierarchy was that it was the most cost-effective and most environmentally sound way to handle waste in this prescribed hierarchical order. However, this implicit assumption was never subjected to a technical, economic and environmental validation. Rather, it simply became the politically dominant position.”

Schall attempts to justify the hierarchy on technical, economic and environmental grounds, but ultimately his conclusions remain flawed. Schall adopts the insubstantial recycling rhetoric that makes faulty assumptions about the viability of landfills and the value of secondary sources.

Infinite Landfill Space
There are several myths surrounding the arguments for recycling and source reduction that discredit much of the Green Cup fervor. One of the most powerful arguments in favor of recycling stems from a so-called “landfill crisis” that makes recycling seem a better alternative than dumping. Analysis of the current U.S. landfill situation shows that such a crisis is largely the false construction of environmental advocates and ill-informed consumers.

It is true that landfill capacity in the United States has been declining 2.8% annually while the amount of waste produced has been increasing at 1.6 percent. Advocates usually cite this statistic along with another favorite—that half of all landfills now in use will close within five years—to show that the United States will soon be running out of landfill space. Both of these statistics are misleading.

First of all, it is unlikely that the country will run out of space to dump garbage anytime soon. Lynn Scarlett, vice president of the pro-free-market Reason Foundation in Los Angeles, calculated that all the garbage produced by the United States for the next 100 years could fit into landfills comprising just one-hundredth of one percent of the total U.S. land mass. Secondly, the claim that many landfills are closing is true but unimportant. Landfills are always preparing to close. Most have a lifespan of about 10 years. Moreover, newer landfills that are opening average nearly two-and-one-half times the size of old ones, according to a 1986 EPA report.

Due to political pressure and misinterpretation of the facts, landfill space is declining at a rate of nine million tons a year while new space is only opening up at the rate of four million tons a year. Thus, there is a 2.8% decline in the total landfill capacity per year. This loss of landfill capacity is due mostly to artificial and unnecessary government regulations on land use. Federal regulations have been driving up the costs of potential landfill sites. Restrictions on design, equipment and construction make modern landfills far more expensive than in the past. State regulations, like the ones in nearby New Jersey, have driven landfill operators out of state, creating a landfill crisis. New restrictions on interstate transportation of garbage will likely worsen New Jersey’s situation.

The other major reason for disappearing landfill space stems from ill-informed community fears about the health dangers of landfills and incinerators. These fears lead to the well-known NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) syndrome where local governments refuse to sell landfill space due to community pressures. Since most landfills do not contain any hazardous materials, they pose minuscule health risks to their neighbors. In fact, current EPA standards are so strict that less than 20% of landfills pose more than a one-in-a-million health risk of cancer over 70 years. This risk is equivalent to the risk of eating one peanut butter sandwich a month for 15 months. An estimated 40% pose a risk greater than one-in-a-billion, or equivalent to the chances of being struck by a meteorite.

In a similar vein, the health risks and pollution costs of incinerators, which convert trash into energy, are quite low. According to Bruce Ames, Chairman of the Department of Biochemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, the cancer risks of most modern incinerators (also known as municipal waste combustors or MWCs) are equivalent to “drinking one beer every eight years.”
The government response to the NIMBY syndrome has been to reduce the amount of garbage headed to landfills on the assumption that landfills pose a greater health risk. In fact, new government regulations, like Connecticut’s 25% mandatory recycling law, only increase the health risks to the public by favoring older landfills over safer modern ones. Although most of the old landfills pose a negligible risk, the newer ones have an even lower risk to the public.

Source Irreducibility
Along with recycling, source reduction has been one of the major goals of the environmental movement’s solid waste management scheme. Green efforts to modify use of solid waste range from Sting’s biodegradable CD cases to the battle over Styrofoam at McDonalds to the packaging of orange juice. The reduction advocates assume that the average American produces more and more per capita solid waste—which has the additional problem of being more environmentally unsound than older products. This assumption, like many of the other green beliefs, proves to be misleading.

Although the total amount of solid waste produced in America is increasing by three million tons a year (or 1.6%), this growth is not the result of a new “throwaway” society. The current growth in solid waste is almost entirely the reflection of normal population growth. The amount of solid waste produced per person is actually decreasing in relation to the gross national product. The reason for this per capita decrease, according to Harvey Alter of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in his 1991 article in Waste Management and Research, is probably due to the increased use of plastics and aluminum. Additionally, modern packaging is much lighter and therefore consumes less resources than in the past.

For instance, plastic milk jugs have decreased in weight from an average of 95 grams in the 1970s to 60 grams in the 1990s. plastic grocery bags have decreased in thickness from an average of 2.3 millimeters in 1976 to 0.7 millimeters in 1989. All of this reduction in packaging weight reduces the percentage of packaging as waste. Thus, the “intensity of waste,” the amount of waste per person as a percentage of the GNP, has been declining.
Silly hysteria over Styrofoam and polystyrene have forced companies like McDonalds to dump their traditional hamburger boxes. But polystyrene foam accounts for a negligible percentage of the country’s landfill space. In 1988, William Rathje of the University of Arizona’s Garbage Project estimated that polystyrene made up a mere 0.14% of the average landfill space. In addition, the new cups and containers prove to be miserable insulators.

Recycling Nothingness
The other prong of the green movement’s solid waste management campaign has been a blind devotion to recycling. Recycling, greens argue, can help prevent more trash from filling up landfills. While this is true, recycling is not always the more economically efficient or environmentally responsible alternative to dumping or incinerating. Sometimes, recycling actually creates more pollution than landfill dumping.

Aluminum cans remain the poster child of the recycling movement. Indeed, recycling aluminum cans is almost always more environmentally sound than producing new aluminum cans since recycling aluminum cans uses 95% less energy per unit of new aluminum produced. But what works for aluminum doesn’t always work for other types of solid waste.

Recycling costs add up due to the extra costs of collecting, transporting and processing recycled materials. Moreover, most materials require much more money and energy to recycle than aluminum cans. Recycling plastic, for instance, is typically 20% more expensive than producing new plastic. Substituting a recyclable material for plastic doesn’t necessarily solve the problem since the heavier weight of metal containers would require more trucks for transportation. This leads to a greater increase in air pollution and fuel consumption.

Still, greens contend, recycling certain products like paper may cost more but have “external” savings from the preservation of old-growth forests. But taking out your recycling bin will probably never save a single tree or spotted owl. Nearly 87% of all trees used for paper production are located on commercial, privately-owned forests. These trees are planted specifically and only for producing pulpwood for paper. Recycling paper actually has the perverse effect of reducing the number of trees. Recycled paper cuts back on the demand for new pulpwood, thus leading to other uses for such land and a decrease in the number of trees. Ironically, since 1970, pulpwood consumption has increased while the number of trees in America has also increased by a whopping 20 percent.

Mandating Waste
Even though the green movement’s solid waste management hierarchy has little evidence to back it up, the movement’s political power has managed to persuade the federal and state governments to enact mandates on recycling and source reduction. Connecticut, for instance, enacted a 25% recycling mandate for all businesses and citizens. The law targets an eventual 50% recycling rate by 2000. But these mandates usually fail since they distort the normal free-market pricing system that already regulates solid waste management.

Mandates like Connecticut’s law remove the costs to the consumers of disposing of solid waste. Prices, in a free market, are supposed to reflect the worth to society of each resource depending upon its scarcity and utility. If paper were really a scarce commodity, then prices would rise to reflect that and real source reduction would be achieved. Similarly, if residents had to pay for their trash removal by the pound rather than through taxes, there would be a greater incentive to reduce waste. Instead, residents have no incentive to throw out less since the cost to them remains the same.

Thus, the psychology of mandated recycling often causes a far greater waste of resources than no recycling at all. If it is not economically feasible to recycle 50% of one’s waste, then a state mandate will force businesses to use wasteful processes to meet the mandate.

Free market environmentalists don’t claim to have all the answers. But they do offer a powerful critique of the widely-held recycling and solid waste disposal ideology. Yale’s recycling program provides a good example of the problems with the conventional environmental agenda. No one claims that economics alone justifies Yale’s recycling program. Instead, Yale environmentalists appeal to a higher good achieved from recycling. This higher good, which consists of vague notions of saving trees and other natural resources, is often not accomplished by recycling. Oftentimes, recycling and source reduction activities have greater environmental costs, not to mention economic ramifications, than traditional methods of waste disposal.

But Yale is only part of a larger nationwide trend toward state-mandated recycling and source reduction activities. These mandates, far more dangerous than the Green Cup, often enforce economically inefficient and environmentally unsound practices. Both the Green Cup and the Connecticut mandates stem from the same fundamentally flawed philosophy.

—Bill Danielson, Senior Editor, is a freshman in Davenport College. Julian Ku, former Editor-in-Chief, is a junior in Davenport.


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