Are there drawbacks to Curbside Recycling?
Question: What should be considered when focusing on increasing participation in curbside recycling? Are there drawbacks?
Ideally this happens on a national level, but I don’t know that we have the political will to achieve something like this on a national level. It seems like it evolves in the coast and kind of works its way closer to the center of the country. Brian, do you want to argue with me on that?
That is too broad. Certainly, I’d like to argue with that. The coasts certainly can be leaders in a lot that happens in recycling. But, don’t pick on the center part of the states. There are some really neat examples in Minnesota. Even in Chicago area they’re doing some things that I think are pretty nice to remark. It may be the more populated areas seem to focus on recycling things because they perhaps see more of the impact initially and more of the populated areas are on the coast.
Well, I think if you have a municipal recycling program in place already then there are no drawbacks to increasing participation at all. But, the question is: what are you really trying to achieve as a municipality?
- Are you trying to save landfill costs?
- Are you trying – as Brian points out – to bring your city in line to a model of sustainability and all that entails in terms of material sustainability and energy sustainability?
So, I think each city in each place really has to stop and ask themselves: Why do we recycle? A number of years ago, there was a book that came out with that title: Why do we recycle? by Frank Ackerman and I think it’s a good question to kind of remind ourselves of on a regular basis because there are a lot of different goals that can be sought through recycling and some of them may be impacted more by recycling than others. But in the end it’s it’s up to each individual municipality to have that discussion with their citizens.
I don’t disagree with things, but I want to put a different spin, on a different angle. For those that have worked in a solid waste authority type of role that deal with recycling, collection, landfill related costs in all those things. In that regard, if you (consider) a system that includes all of that when they increase recycling that diverts from the landfill, which is in a lot of ways a very good thing, but it hurts the economy of scale of the landfill, and so they raise the rates. So, the system costs isn’t just one-dimensional. It is more comprehensive than that.
So, we need to look at it in a sustainable way. And, I am not saying diverting from landfill isn’t a good thing to do but there can be an increase cost there and we may take on some some new ventures in recycling such as – and I’m going to take maybe an extreme example – having special collection for polystyrene packaging which might be quite expensive for the volume we get and so we need to look at the whole package of what it costs and recycling does have somewhat of a cost to it and – we’re looking at sustainability and I’m looking at (it) as a triple bottom line: people, planet and profit or the economy. And we still need to drive for what is
best overall long-term and its not looking at the status quo, but there can be unintended consequences when we benefit one aspect of the whole system and not pay attention to what’s happening to the other aspects of the system. I’m not negating increasing recycling at all, but I think sometimes there are some other unintended consequences.
I would add to that. I think it is important to increase recycling and I think that’s a desirable outcome. However, I would say that it’s not with out potential negative consequences.One of them is: if you push it too hard – the recycling commodity – the quality of the material suffers. You get increased contamination rates. So, there are are some other factors to consider rather than just increasing the quantity all the time. But, I think those things can be managed and dealt with. It’s just a matter of looking at it and ensuring that the quality stays high
International Vice President, Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA)
Author, Recycling Reconsidered: the Present Failure and Future Promise of Environmental Action