Recycling: Economics or Environment

February 5, 1999

By Michael Jessen

The conflict between environmental and economic goals is threatening the future of recycling. This clash has resulted in decreased recycling and increased garbage for our neighbour to the south.

Once a leader in materials recovery, Washington state's recycling rate decline continues. The effects of a 1995 cut in education funding are visible in 1997's recycling rate of 32.4 percent, down from 39.0 percent in 1996. The word is that the 1998 figure will be down again.

Several factors contributed to this drop. While recovered tonnages fell by more than 400,000, the amount of waste landfilled increased 400,000 tons. As well, the state has seen the addition of 255,400 residents between 1995 and 1997 -- newcomers lacking recycling education.

As a society, we expect that recycling should "make money" because the recyclables are sold. Unfortunately, prices paid for recyclables fluctuate wildly. Not a good thing when trying to put together a recycling budget.

Now that most jurisdictions are charging for waste disposal, landfills are starting to "make money", not enough to cover their costs, but money nevertheless. This sets up a conflict: if landfills make more money than recycling, why bother to recycle?

Frank Ackerman has tackled this subject in a new book "Why Do We Recycle?"

"Recycling is environmentally desirable -- and today's municipal programs are a valuable step toward a more sustainable economy," says Ackerman. "That's why recycling is worth doing even if it entails moderate cost increases.

"In an affluent society, the inclination to spend a few dollars to prepare for a better future is logical and reasonable," Ackerman adds.

Ah, but there's the rub. We're paying more today for a better future tomorrow. Some people say they'd rather pay less and have a better future today. Short-term thinking versus the long-term; the battle continues.

Recycling is expensive, sometimes a little more expensive than disposal, sometimes a little less. The expense of recycling results in large part from the costs of collection and processing, both of which are labour intensive. In spite of the fact we have 1.2 million unemployed Canadians, we still grumble about the cost of employing workers to collect and sort recyclables.

Many of the benefits of recycling -- a cleaner environment, saves energy, creates jobs, saves money on disposal costs, reduces litter -- are not income generators for the recycling budget.

Which may be the main reason Ackerman says "the current impetus for recycling can only be fully understood in relation to the long-run goal of material conservation."

Many people participate in recycling because they believe that materials are scarce and that conserving them is the right thing to do. "Only in the short run is this debatable," says Ackerman.

"In the long run, the materials we use freely today will be scarce, and our descendants will have to create a strikingly different, renewable economy," he says. "Contemporary recycling points toward that far-off future."

No one can predict the future with absolute certainty, but if our goals in life include a commitment to do the right thing for society and the environment, recycling is one of the most accessible, tangible symbols of that commitment. It seems prudent to act with caution rather than recklessness. It makes sense to hedge our bets.

Ackerman concludes that "the practice of recycling pushes us in the right direction, toward the development of the technologies of sustainable material use, and toward the creation of less materialistic, more socially and environmentally engaged ways of living. There is no greater hope in any other direction. Indeed, in the long run there is nowhere else to go."

The economics of recycling are not going to change anytime soon. Tax shifts will need to be made, virgin material subsidies will have to be re-examined, and our consumer society will have to be rigidly questioned. We cannot force our economy to pay more for recyclables, when it has a vested interest going back a hundred years to use virgin materials.

Recycling will become mainstream as long as we don't use short-term economic interests to kill it in its infancy.

TRASH TIP - "Why Do We Recycle?" by Frank Ackerman was published by Island Press in 1997. It is available for $16.95 (US) in paperback. If you doubt the need to recycle, this should be required reading.

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