Monday, June 11, 2007

Economically Efficient Recycling Requires Comprehensive Programs

When I saw the article in The Economist headlined, “The truth about recycling,” I half expected a dry discussion of commodity prices. I was wrong. While higher commodity prices make recycled materials more valuable, the most interesting point in the article is that collection methods have a strong effect on the economic efficiency of recycling programs:
Originally kerbside programmes asked people to put paper, glass and cans into separate bins. But now the trend is toward co-mingled or “single stream” collection. About 700 of America's 10,000 kerbside programmes now use this approach, says Kate Krebs, executive director of America's National Recycling Coalition.
San Francisco switched to single stream and now diverts 69 percent of solid waste.
Single stream recycling has two key advantages. The first is the ease of use. As a participant in Wilmington’s pilot recycling program, I put all of my recyclables (paper, cardboard, cans, glass and plastic) in one bin and place it on the curb once a week. The ease of participation has resulted in a diversion rate of 35 percent in Wilmington’s pilot program in just a few months. Wilmington is now rolling out curbside recycling in all city neighborhoods.
The second advantage is the savings in collection and handling. In order to institute curbside recycling, Wilmington is simply converting one of its two weekly pickups to recycling. The city uses the same trash crews and trucks it uses for regular pickup and delivers the material to a Philadelphia company called RecycleBank that sorts it for reuse. The company provides the only specialized equipment the city needs: a device mounted on trash trucks that reads a barcode and weighs the contents of each bin. The city pays RecycleBank for accepting the material, which is partly offset by reduced tipping fees. Wilmington set aside $150,000 in the upcoming budget to cover the difference, which comes to about six dollars a household per year.
The key to making single stream recycling work is diverting enough material to reduce the unit cost of the sorting facility. The labor intensive process of sorting and handling by hand (by consumers and collectors) is out of the picture, which greatly enhances the economies of scale of the process.
Taken together, these two advantages lead to proportionally greater benefits as waste diversion increases. A year ago, I calculated the value of reducing landfill accumulation, and concluded that the more waste diverted from Cherry Island Landfill, the longer we can go without having to site and build a new landfill in New Castle County. In this analysis, every ton diverted is calculated to create a fixed amount of long term savings.
When collection is included in the economic picture, a dynamic effect can be seen. As waste diversion reaches a tipping point, as it were, the economic value of recycling becomes more pronounced. As an example, the budgeted cost of single stream recycling in Wilmington is about six dollars a year per household, while the Delaware Solid Waste Authority (DSWA) charges three dollars a month ($36 annually) to pick up presorted material.
There is a lesson to be found in this dramatic difference in cost: Half measures are not as effective or efficient as comprehensive recycling programs. In order to reap the economic and environmental benefits of recycling, Delaware’s decision makers should adopt bold measures instead of taking tentative steps.


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