Thursday, December 28, 2006

Wilmington to Expand Curbside Recycling

For the last five months, I've been putting all my recyclable materials (glass, plastic, paper) in one bin once a week as part of Wilmington's pilot curbside recycling program. Soon more of my neighbors will be able to do the same.
The News Journal reports that the city is going to expand curbside recycling to all residents by June, even though the neighborhoods in the program have only diverted 32 percent of the waste stream, falling short of the target diversion rate of 50 percent:
Early in the pilot program, officials said 50 percent of the trash stream must get recycled in order to decrease landfill fees enough to offset the projected $786,000 a permanent program would cost annually. But [city communications director] Rago said the city plans to implement the program citywide for at least the next five years.
"The final numbers are still being ironed out, but we think that enough recycling will be done citywide so that the city will at least break even, if not save money in landfill fees," he said.
It's a rational decision. Few private sector strategic initiatives are expected to break even in six months; the city's program should not be deemed a failure after such a short trial period.
Councilman Bud Freel thinks the cost of recycling is worth the environmental benefits:
Freel said he thinks the program should go citywide even if it ends up costing the city money.
"I don't think you can put a price tag on the environmental benefits of recycling," he said.
While I appreciate his sentiment and his leadership on the issue, I don't quite agree. I think you can measure the economic benefits, and conclude that it makes economic sense for the city to move ahead even if it hasn't yet reached the break-even point.
Six months ago, I wrote that the economic benefits of recycling are real and can be calculated. But the overall benefits I calculated required a modest capital investment (roughly $5 million) that has not been made. Wilmington has engaged a Philadelphia firm to do what the Delaware Solid Waste Authority (DSWA) is not equipped to do: accept unsorted recyclable materials. The DSWA has enormous fixed costs that are covered by tipping fees, and thus may have little incentive to make the necessary investment in recycling.
If Wilmington's recycling program helps to nudge the DSWA towards diverting more of the solid waste stream away from landfilling, then it will generate economic benefits that are not reflected in the city's current pilot program.

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