The Successes and Failures of Recycling Programs in Cities

The Successes and Failures of Recycling Programs in Cities

By Heidi Reidel

According to the latest figures (from 2014) published by the EPA, in the United States, about 258 million tons of municipal solid waste were generated, over 89 million tons of which were recycled and composted. That is equivalent to a recycling rate of 34.6%.

This means that recycling efforts in 2014 when there was an annual reduction of over 181 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions, were comparable to the annual emissions from over 38 million passenger cars. Despite reduced greenhouse gas emissions and original theories that recycling would be paying for itself, critics are concerned that recycling programs may be costing cities too much.

Successful Recycling Programs

The most successful recycling programs appear to be in cities along the West Coast, with 4 out of the top 5 in California. It is suggested that the culture and values of these areas have something to do with that success. San Francisco holds the number one place for recycling with an 80% success rate and the policy director of San Francisco’s Department of the Environment, Guillermo Rodriguez, attributes their success to the city’s core values, one of which is to reach Zero Waste status. Portland, Oregon, which holds the number 4 spot at 70% also accredits the enthusiasm of its citizens with the success of its recycling program.

Rules and regulations regarding recycling are also a contributing factor to the success of programs in these cities. Examples include bans on disposable plastic bags and mandatory recycling and composting. To reduce recyclables’ contamination, San Jose implemented a “Clean Recyclables Cart” campaign, where waste haulers note residences with consistently miss-sorted items. City staff then contacts residents with educational material on the proper procedure (available in English, Spanish, and Vietnamese) and offer further help if needed. San Jose also has an innovative Zero Waste Events program which has cut waste generated at public events (conventions, fairs, etc.) by 81%. San Diego’s innovative initiative is an aerated composting site. Aerated static piles pump air into long composting windrows, so the material breaks down without needing turning, saving energy and expense.

Weighing the Costs of Recycling Programs in Cities

The largest problem with recycling programs in cities is that it costs cities money. The biggest factor is the cost of sorting. Residents are putting items in recycling bins that shouldn’t be there. A study on municipal solid waste recycling issues suggests that programs need to evaluate if the cost and environmental impact of recycling products outweigh that of sending products to landfill. According to the study, recycling plastic and aluminum can be profitable for cities, but recycling glass and paper is costlier and often unnecessary.

Other factors impacting costs are contamination and a changing market. The value of materials changes due to a fluctuating market, which is beyond local government control. Contamination, however, occurs when the value of a recyclable good goes down because of other items that have been mixed in. To combat this, city officials are weighing the benefits of a dual-stream recycling system versus consumers putting everything in one bin. One bin is more convenient for citizens, but the dual-stream will reduce contamination.

Fixing the System

As abandoning recycling programs altogether would only return cities to the problems of landfills, the next step is looking for ways to improve the system. Further attempts to educate citizens on what goes into recycling bins is a start. The programs that are implemented on the West Coast could be spread to other cities. A popular program in Europe is “extended producer responsibility,” or EPR, which shifts the cost of recycling from municipal governments to producers. Companies like Walmart, Coca-Cola, and Procter & Gamble would be responsible for financing some of the municipalities’ recycling programs and for reducing the amount of material involved in packaging and production which would, in turn, reduce a number of materials that need to be recycled in the first place.

The study above on municipal solid waste recycling issues suggests a few solutions. Among them, introducing regulations on raw materials, which would increase the price of recyclables, and product takeback by manufacturers. They also suggest a deposit/refund system, like what is done with aluminum cans, where people collect materials earmarked for recycling that required a consumer or producer deposit. They then return these items for a refund attractive enough to undertake the task. This reduces the need for government employees to sort through recycling as citizens would be doing this on their own.

Recycling programs are a necessary service. The environmental impact of landfills is too detrimental to be ignored, yet cities must be able to afford these programs for them to be effective. If done properly, recycling can be economically viable and even profitable, rather than a further stress on municipal budgets.

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