The Volokh Conspiracy

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Is Recycling on the Ropes?

Recycling waste streams is supposed to be economical, but many jurisdictions are discovering that's not always so.


The costs faced by many municipal recycling programs are skyrocketing, causing some cities to consider waste management alternatives, including burning recyclable wastes in incinerators. The New York Times reports:

Recycling, for decades an almost reflexive effort by American households and businesses to reduce waste and help the environment, is collapsing in many parts of the country.

Philadelphia is now burning about half of its 1.5 million residents' recycling material in an incinerator that converts waste to energy. In Memphis, the international airport still has recycling bins around the terminals, but every collected can, bottle and newspaper is sent to a landfill. And last month, officials in the central Florida city of Deltona faced the reality that, despite their best efforts to recycle, their curbside program was not working and suspended it.

Those are just three of the hundreds of towns and cities across the country that have canceled recycling programs, limited the types of material they accepted or agreed to huge price increases.

Municipalities are discovering that processing recyclables can be expensive, and waste management firms are becoming less willing to treat recycling programs as loss leaders. Another part of the problem is that China is no longer an eager recipient of America's recyclable waste streams, in part due to the problem of preventing contamination when non-recyclable items get intermingled with recyclables. From the NYT story:

While there remains a viable market in the United States for scrap like soda bottles and cardboard, it is not large enough to soak up all of the plastics and paper that Americans try to recycle. The recycling companies say they cannot depend on selling used plastic and paper at prices that cover their processing costs, so they are asking municipalities to pay significantly more for their recycling services. Some companies are also charging customers additional "contamination" fees for recycled material that is mixed in with trash.

In lieu of recycling, some have turned to waste incineration, including at waste-to-energy facilities. In other cases the waste gets sent off to landfills.

Old habits die hard, though, and many are not willing to give up the encouragement of recycling, even if little waste ends up being recycled. The NYT reports the Memphis airport plans on "keeping its recycling bins in place to preserve 'the culture' of recycling among passengers and employees," in the hope actual recycling will resume at some future point.

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  1. In my town, recycling is not old or habitual. It was just introduced. No reasonable person expects it to work, or to provide environmental benefits. But it was useful as political cover to help the trash haulers raise their rates.

    That said, all the discussion really shows is that the materials which need recycling for environmental reasons are being sold initially at subsidized prices, by ignoring environmental externalities. Something has to be done to fix that, and for the life of me I can not see how to do it except by regulation. Any suggestions, Adler?

    1. "materials which need recycling for environmental reasons"

      Which materials are those?

      "by ignoring environmental externalities"

      How are there anymore environmental externalities in throwing away something that could be recycled instead of something that can't?

      1. Ignoring the economic realities? Like taking very high-value labor (mine) to sort garbage, as a precursor to the ponzi scheme of recycling to work?

        If the recycling stream were valuable, then low-value labor could be used to sort it.

        Recycling is inefficient, no matter who sorts the garbage. We literally must pay people to take it and those rubes are fewer and fewer between.

        1. You're not getting SL's point. He thinks that we should be charging more for paper and plastic on the front end, and that not doing that is "subsidizing" them. He wants to jack up the prices on, well, everything.

          1. Careless, the bad news is that when you leave out the cost of cleaning up your mess, your labor always looks more valuable then it is. To square that account, you can, as you call it, jack up the prices on everything (or on a lot of things), or recalculate the value of labor downward, and take the balance to pay for cleanup. An alternative argument, that the most efficient solution is to just keep doing what we have been doing, is looking less and less likely to be correct.

            1. "An alternative argument, that the most efficient solution is to just keep doing what we have been doing, is looking less and less likely to be correct."

              Right. That's why municipalities are moving away from inefficient and wasteful recycling programs.

            2. "Careless, the bad news is that when you leave out the cost of cleaning up your mess, your labor always looks more valuable then it is."

              Since the end user is the one responsible for cleaning up the mess, the cost is already baked into the product. When I buy paper, I'm purchasing the cost of the paper, and the hassle of having to put it into trash or recycling bins when used. If I shifted that cost to the producer/seller, the price would go up. The "subsidization" (not real) occurs because a free rider problem produced a failure--not a market failure in paper suppliers but a political problem in paper users. If you want to correct it, you don't charge the suppliers more to produce, you charge the users more to dispose. Which, incidentally, is exactly what we do.

              1. Although I'll not that charging the producers more will have the exact same effect regardless: the consumers will pay for the cost to dispose of the paper. Either through their time, taxes, or higher price for the disposed goods.

                1. The advantage of targeting the seller is at least two-fold:

                  1. The potential value of the uses is still to be had, instead of already used up.

                  2. Sellers are not a numerous as users, who are very hard to mobilize in large numbers after they have already received all the value they hoped to get, and can only grow less satisfied if further burdened,

                  1. The disadvantage of targetting the seller is that the seller has no control of the disposal of the stuff after it has been used. So unless any method of disposal is equal to any other in terms of externality-cost to the public, the buyer now has a sunk cost and has no incentive to dispose of the stuff in a low externality-cost manner. (We will stipulate for amusement that externality-costs can be estimated reliably.)

                    If this is policed by threats and sanctions against the buyer, to encourage him to dispose of the stuff in a low-externality manner, which we will stipulate may be at least partially successful as an incentive, then the buyer will be paying twice; once up front and then again when he goes through the policed disposal hoops.

                    This is very economically inefficient, since it will reduce commerce in the said stuff. As externalities are frequently positive for the public - double penalising a few negative externalities (and ignoring the positive ones) is hardly the way to maximise public welfare.

                    1. Nah. You make it the responsibility of the seller to take the used-up stuff back from the buyer, and dispose of it correctly. The seller makes the buyer pay for that service at the time of initial purchase. Sellers like that. They make money. especially when stuff doesn't come back. Buyers will put up with it, and bring almost all high value stuff back, and some of the low value stuff. This has been going on for decades in the beverage industry.

                      And of course making the stuff more expensive, hence less useful and less used, is built in too. Free marketeers should see that as just more magic from the market?conserving stuff while countering externalities.

                    2. No that's hopeless. Recycling of barrels and bottles has (sometimes) made economic sense, because the used barrel or bottle was (a) actually valuable, ie a cheaper source of new barrels and bottles than manufacture and (b) acquirable, in some cases, at reasonable administration and transportation cost. The many cases where condition (b) is failed can be ignored without cost.

                      Encouraging a seller to reacquire useless waste requires subsidising the seller (presumably by some kind of partial refund on the original extra sales tax imposed on the stuff) and in turn requires the seller to reacquire the waste from the buyer - so another payment. This is costly in bureaucracy and regulation - not a problem with profitable recycling eg of barrels, because the recycling is creating wealth, but a dead loss with unprofitable recycling.

                      Second while a seller of beer is the most suitable person to chase beer barrels - he's the guy who can use them - a seller of plastics is not in the same position at all. A buyer in Wisconsin has to return the plastic to the seller in North Carolina. Or China. Rather than dispose of it five miles away from home. It's a hopeless Heath Robinson scheme - unless you're dealing with actually valuable waste, in which case you don't need a scheme because the market will work it out.

                    3. The seller makes the buyer pay for that service at the time of initial purchase. Sellers like that. They make money. especially when stuff doesn't come back.

                      Eh ? The seller currently sells the stuff for $x because that's the market price. If he could sell the stuff for $x+2, he'd do so. So your scheme will only work if the government requires him to charge an extra 2. But if he's going to keep the 2 if the buyer fails to return the stuff, then he'll just reduce the price to $x-2, add the government's required 2, and we'll be back to $x. Your scheme will only work (we'll it won't work anyway, but I'll humor you) - it'll only work if the seller has to hand over the 2 to the government. Or 2 times (b-a) where a = stuff returned and recycled and b= total sales of stuff. Plenty of jobs for beancounters there.

                    4. I think Lee has the better of this one. It makes more sense to charge the buyer for disposal, for the simple reason that this encourages the buyer not to dispose of the material if he can find a use for it. It also encourages the seller to use material, like packing, that can be reused.

                      If I buy some stuff packed in a cardboard box I might use the box to store some things, or I might throw it away. If I have to pay to throw it away than I'm more likely to find a use for it. If I buy food in a glass jar that I can reuse, I'm more likely to reuse it if it will cost me something to throw it out. And I'm more likely to buy the product that comes in a jar than the one that comes in a flimsy plastic container that will split, and cost me money to discard.

                      It's the individual who makes the decision who should pay the cost.

          2. A producer not paying the costs for the "Externalities" is one of those costs which the producers are "subsidized ". This is a rather new economic concept created primarily to argue against disfavored industries. Anti fossil fuel activists like to argue that the oil and gas industry receives huge subsidies since they are not paying the cost of externalities - what ever they are.

            But this argument is as weak as the concept that farmers are receiving a subsidy because they are not paying the cost of the byproduct of food conception - ie they arent paying for someone else's sh*t.

            1. Industries become "disfavored" at least in part in proportion to their infliction of externalized costs on others.

          3. In my experience, front-loading environmental costs is just another tax. Many things (electronics, some building materials, tires, etc) had an up front environmental fee when I lived in Canada: When you wanted to get rid of them there was another, added environmental fee plus the cost of disposal. In the US, there were environmental fees on tires and whatnot, but that didn't pay for their disposal either. Just another scam.

            And of course SL wants to jack up the prices on everything. Thats what economically illiterate fascists do when they can't win an argument.

      2. Ignoring the economic realities? Like taking very high-value labor (mine) to sort garbage, as a precursor to the ponzi scheme of recycling to work?

        If the recycling stream were valuable, then low-value labor could be used to sort it.

        Recycling is inefficient, no matter who sorts the garbage. We literally must pay people to take it and those rubes are fewer and fewer between.

        1. Flight, you make an argument about the inefficiency of garbage sorting, but it's too small. The missing piece is that willy-nilly discard of poisons and plastics is super-efficient, but too dangerous. A better way to think about it suggests that when you apply your labor on the basis of will-nilly discard, that labor is less valuable then you suppose. Your discards might even be subtracting more value than your labor can add.

          1. "Poisons and plastics"; One of these is not like the other.

            1. How so, Brett? Why aren't plastics which have disintegrated into micro-particles (in response to sun exposure in seawater) not actual poisons to marine life? For that matter, plastic bags which haven't disintegrated, which get eaten by sea creatures, and then kill those creatures, seem to be acting as poisons too.

              1. That is a comment on how they were disposed of....BTW, the greatest amount (by FAR) of plastics in the ocean come from the countries that plastic recyclables were sold to.....China and India. Plastic is not valuable enough in those countries (with their very low labor costs) to be worth collecting.

                I don't litter. Not because of the risk to wildlife, but because I don't like looking at trash.

                Now, when I go by a recycling facilty, what is all around it? Trash?

          2. I use my expensive labor to sort poisons and take them to appropriate dumps several times a year. Because the external costs of poisoning the environment are high enough to make it worthwhile to me.

            Plastics, paper, etc are not valuable enough. To me, or to my community recycling efforts.

    2. Yes, recycle the scraps into power generator supply feed.

      A plastic bottle is really just a long chain hydrocarbon, like oil or natural gas. Get the burner up hot enough and it's a more than self sustaining process, generating "waste" energy (that's how power plants work, FYI). And if it's a combined cycle, it's even relatively clean.

      Tokyo's been doing this for many years now.

      1. Fine idea.
        And the two urban communities I've lived in where this has been proposed have risen up as one to protest any sort of incinerator.
        Politically, apparently both a dead end and a third rail, to mix transit metaphors.

    3. I have a suggestion for taking into account the environmental externalities. When you buy something, then you are responsible for properly disposing of the packaging and disposing of the item when you no longer want it.

      You are the consumer, you are the responsible party, so you should probably take those externalities into account when you make the purchase.

      1. There really aren't any environmental externalities involved in burying cardboard and plastic packaging in landfills. The only 'externalities' are what might be termed 'aesthetic externalities' being generated by people who are offended at the very idea of burying waste. I think these 'aesthetic externalities' themselves are a noxious waste product.

  2. A trade of energy for materials seems a channel worth leaving open, even if not currently economical.

    1. I understood the bit from "a channel" onwards (I think) - ie it might be worth doing something for a future payoff (in whatever measurement units you favor.)

      No idea what the first bit is about though. Energy is traded for materials, and vice versa, quite economically thank you, every day of the week. And uneconomical trades between energy and materials are eschewed daily.

      You obviously have something deeper in mind.

  3. The problem with recycling is that there are three types of recycling.

    1: Make-Money recycling, aka scrap metal. This has been going on for hundreds of years. The metal replaces the expense of mining and refining, and recycled metal is just as good as the original, so recycled metal has value.

    2: Low-Money Quality Material recycling, glass. Glass recycling makes fine material, but it isn't much more cost effective than melting sand. It's got some value, but not much.

    3: Low-Money, Low-Quality recycling, paper and plastic. These are where the problem comes in. Both of these degrade over time in a way that recycling doesn't reset. Material made with recycled paper or plastic is objectively worse than with fresh material (compare oak lumber to particle board) and does not have and special properties, making it impossible to use in specialty applications. These, we would be better off burning for energy recovery, or just burying in landfill (the paper biodegrades and the plastic acts like rocks).

    1. I'm a bit surprised w.r.t paper. Even way back when, before the current "mandatory recycling programs" fad, recyclers used to pay money for stacks of newspaper. Not much, admittedly, but still some.

      And even today, businesses seem to specially collect and bundle cardboard.

      Maybe it's the whole "mixed paper" aspect that is messing those programs up?

      1. Probably. When businesses bundle up cardboard, it's generally large quantities of identical grade, relatively clean cardboard. NOT mixed with glossy magazines, for instance.

        Those glossy papers are hard to recycle, they're full of fillers that you don't want in the pulp.

        I was somewhat surprised when our town stopped taking glass for recycling; It's one of the easier to recycle materials, and recycled glass is actually part of the normal process for making new glass. I guess the demand for new glass bottles is tanking due to the use of plastic bottles.

        I could see glass making a comeback, though, if the current concerns about hormone mimicking chemicals in the plastic prove to be well founded.

        1. The problem with glass is that it is heavy and the shipping costs to get it to where it can be recycled are higher than it is worth when it gets there.

          Recycling paper is not bad, but you can really only recycle plain, clean paper and every time it is re-pulped the fiber length is reduced. For good, strong paper you need longer fiber lengths. So you still need mostly new pulp with only a minority of recycle to get decent paper.

        2. Our tour of the recycle sort facility was immediately followed by a tour of a glass bottle factory. If I am correctly recalling what the bottle factory manager said, it went something like this: "Sand suitable for glass making is common, so there is no danger of running out, but we like to get recycled glass because it uses less energy (i.e., is cheaper to use) than raw sand. But that price depends on how far you have to move the sand relative to the recycled glass".

          He mentioned a distance that I don't recall exactly - maybe 50 or 100 miles; inside that range it made sense to move the recycled glass; outside that distance it was better to just use raw sand. N.b. his numbers were for trucking and whatever the distance was to his sand supplier; if your sand came a different distance or the glass moved via train or barge you'd get different numbers. But of course, this facility was in the Seattle 'burbs, using local recycled glass and making bottles for a local customer, so it seemed to be pretty much a win-win. The glass plant was closer than the landfill the glass would otherwise be trucked to.

          Glass recycling should be almost a pure economic decision; sand isn't a scarce commodity, glass in a landfill doesn't leach any toxins, and made-from-virgin-sand glass has no advantages over recycled glass[1].

          [1]getting the right tint can be trickier

          1. This sounds right to me. My understanding is that recycling used glass is close in cost to making it from sand, so the decision will be based on things like transportation costs.

        3. My town no longer takes glass for recycling. The problem is that it breaks very easily, and companies do not want broken glass mixed in for safety reasons.

      2. Quick growing pine trees in well managed forests are logged to make cheap new paper. Trees are a renewable resource, and I would actually prefer that we use new paper over recycled, as it means more land goes undeveloped into strip malls as it is more valuable as a forest.

  4. I always thought of recycling as just another feel good virtue signal, but it was driven home when I lived in a city which had one recycling bin for everything. They could do that because they paid convicts 10 cents an hour to sort it. It struck me that if you need basically slave labor (either convicts or the general public) to sort out the good from the bad, you were probably not getting a very good sorting out, and I assumed most of it was just sent to the landfill or incinerator anyway.

    1. FWIW, I once got to tour Seattle's recycling processing center. It was entirely automated, except for sorting plastics by types. This was processing all the recycling from a couple of million people, and the staffing was something like 2 folks running front end loaders moving stuff around and four or five people sorting plastics. There was a supervisor as well, and I expect a manitenance guy or two. The automated stuff sorted out the glass, steel, aluminum, and paper. The plastic bottles went zooming down a conveyor where the sorters stood. After a little while on the job the sorters could recognize that a Heinz ketchup bottle was a number whatever and so could toss almost everything into the appropriate chute w/o looking for the symbol.

      I expect that getting all the automated sorting to work took a bit of effort, so it might not work for smaller towns, but less than 10 people per shift processed all the recycling for a couple million people.

      IIRC, at the then current prices, they made money on the aluminum, steel, and glass (there was a steel mill and glass bottle factory nearby, so negligible shipping costs), and maybe broke even on plastics and paper. I doubt the plastic and paper are still moneymakers.

      1. But if you factor in the cost of the labor of all the people sorting their trash, I doubt it is anywhere close to economical.

        I sort my trash too - recycle vs. not. I do it for only one reason: the city charges me less if I do. And I resent that, because recycling of paper and a plastics is stupid - and, it is almost impossible to sort it right - the rules on plastics and paper and mixing the two are impenetrable.

        1. "the labor of all the people sorting their trash"

          This was mixed recyclables; the only sorting the general population did was garbage vs. all recyclables. Having done that for years, I don't really see it as labor intensive. I don't mix it all together then sort it, I just put garbage in the garbage can and recyclables in a recycle bucket. I make one trip to the outdoor containers carrying both.

          Now, I lived outside the city limits. I think the city might have (initially??) required end user sorting. I think they stopped, but I might have been wrong. It would be kinda silly, because at the processing center it was all mixed at input. The surrounding jurisdictions, I think, always collected mixed.

          In any event, nothing was sorted when it got to the facility.

        2. It might be economical. Keep in mind that landfilling is not free either.

          1. You have identified the proper mathematical criteria for the recycle vs. landfill decision.

            If recycling loses less money than landfill costs, then by all means recycle. But when solid waste companies charge cities MORE for recycling than for land-filling, that is a sign that recycling is economically wasteful.

    2. I worked for a software company for awhile, before med school..the company was into recycling, and had bins for different colors of paper, glass, plastic, etc...

      Working late one night, I was chatting with the janitor....and found out that a) he made more than I did, and b) all the recyclables went into the same trash dumpster. All the effort we spent in sorting was lost....

      It was educational.

  5. Throw it all in landfills. If it is worthwhile, then future generations can mine it and separate it as makes sense.

    1. Precisely. Kansas and Nebraska have lots of empty land for landfills. People that live in urban areas often do not understand this-- it's not easy to comprehend how big and open the Great Plains are until you've driven it.

      1. But it is costly to get urban waste to Kansas and Nebraska. Land near urban centers is expensive.

  6. They should still sort it but all the paper and cardboard and organic material like food waste and yard waste should be burned in local incinerators for carbon neutral power. Then you aren't wasting more energy transporting waste or needlessly filling landfills with bulky energy rich materials.

  7. Much bigger pro-landfill crowd than I would have expected.

    1. I'm surprised there isn't more support on the left for landfills; They sequester a LOT of carbon, you know.

      1. I did a paper on that once.

        Selling the land to gain the air isn't a great trade.

        1. Once they're full you can build on them, so it isn't as though the land is permanently lost.

          1. Generally, one wishes to use the land upon which you build a thing. There is not much of our trash where that doesn't present a problem of one sort or another.

        2. Why not? The US has miles and miles and miles of unused land. And it's not just the air. The trash has to go somewhere, right?

          1. I guess it depends on what you mean by unused.

    2. Next time you fly, pick a window seat and spend the entire flight looking for an active landfill. You will not find one, because landfill just doesn't take up that much space.

  8. Recycling was born in the 1970s out of twin bouts of innumeracy; 1. Energy shortage, and 2. Running out of landfill space for explosive amounts of garbage.

    Now it's kind of a quaint thing tied to resource use. Here is the correct answer and I declare all experts short-sighted fools who are wrong:

    Bury it in landfills, and in 100 years cities will take bids from firms to rip them open and sort it all by robot.

    They will look back at us as short sighted idiots, like we may look back on people in 1900 being concerned about lack of nitrogen sources for farming.

    1. I am stunned by how sensible this plan is.View landfills not as final resting places for materials, but as temporary resource repositories. Genius!

  9. Any claims that recycling costs are recovering 'externalities' are flat out false.
    Anyone who buys a good pays for its disposal either directly to the trash collector or to gov't workers who clean the streets and highways.
    To claim otherwise (see Lathrop, above) is a religious statement regarding the 'morality' of certain goods.

  10. Municipalities made recycling too easy to incentivize the behavior. Maybe now that people are used to recycling, the municipalities can up the difficulty by making people sort. Will have to weigh the reduction in recycling cause by this against the poor effective rate of recycling we have currently.

  11. Recycling is really not the most economical area. After all, first of all, it requires an infusion of solid funds and a high technological level of equipment. But this does not reduce the importance of recycling. Take for example the same Norway, where there is not enough garbage for their activities. In addition, garbage collection and recycling companies are gaining popularity rubbishwaste and others. So it reduces the burden on municipal recycling facilities. Am I right? All the best!

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