Sunday, November 08, 2015

Getting it wrong on recycling

Let's see what those disparaging America's rate of recycling as "too high" either get completely wrong or fail to understand. You can read recent commentary suggesting that the recycling rate is too high here, here and here.

The number one complaint is that it costs more to recycle some categories of waste than to put them into a landfill. What the critics fail to comprehend is that unlike a couple of generations ago when most landfills were owned and run by local governments, today most are run by profit-making enterprises such as Waste Management Inc. and Republic Services Inc. which haul some 80 percent of the nation's refuse. Those enterprises developed their large centralized landfills for the purpose of keeping down their disposal costs.

Since the private waste disposal industry has organized its infrastructure around cheap landfill disposal, it's no wonder that landfilling seems like the most cost-effective option. It follows that if we Americans had built a waste infrastructure with the goal of zero waste as Germany did, our infrastructure would naturally have delivered lower costs for recycling than it does.

The Germans landfill about 1 percent of their waste compared to America's 68 percent. Germans recycle about 70 percent of their waste and burn almost all the rest to produce energy. Americans recycle about 25 percent of their waste and burn about 7 percent.

Consider this analogy. You can make your house energy-efficient in two ways. You can build it to be energy-efficient in the first place. Or, you can add energy-efficient features later on. Which do you think would be more cost-effective?

That's what we've been facing with the boom in recycling. We are retrofitting a system designed for cheap landfilling rather than building a system designed for cheap recycling (which ought to be our goal).

But we must also consider that the narrowly defined cost of landfilling waste does not take into account the long-term costs of monitoring and mitigating damage to soil and water from closed landfills far into the future. Private landfill operators are responsible for what happens for the first 30 years. After that, taxpayers pick up the bill. But only if officials decide to. Otherwise, the cost to human and animal health and the loss of value for properties affected is simply absorbed by those unlucky enough to live or work near a closed landfill.

Now, this is important: Current landfill technology which lines waste pits will not keep pollutants from leaking out forever. In the long run, whatever goes into landfills will eventually seep out with rainwater or sink into the soil below once the lining deteriorates.

Finally, landfills are a source of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, produced by rotting organic matter in the waste. Some of that methane is being captured and burned as fuel. But some of it is released into the atmosphere where it is driving climate change.

When we say that landfilling is cheaper, what we really mean is that landfilling is cheaper for us--not for those who come after us who will have to clean up the mess that keeps on giving.

The howls over the costs of recycling tend to reappear periodically when commodity prices sink as they have done so dramatically in the last year.

That's because recycled materials such as paper, plastic and metals compete with newly harvested or mined materials. When commodity prices are high, recycled material is in demand because it is cost-competitive with virgin materials. During such periods nobody seems to complain about the supposed burdensome costs of recycling because recycled materials are fetching such healthy prices. (Consequently, at such times the nation's editorial pages tend to be silent on the topic of trash.)

When prices are low, the recyclers complain that they cannot earn enough for their recycled materials which must compete with low-priced virgin material being dumped on the market by suppliers desperate for cash. (Predictably, the nation's editorial pages start to take a closer look at trash when this is the case.)

But just like forestry, oil and gas and mining companies and the manufacturers who rely on their raw materials, recyclers ought to have business plans that take into account the full commodity price cycle. Weyerhaeuser Company, the forestry giant, doesn't just close its doors when wood product prices are low. It has a plan for getting through to the next upswing.

While there is room for debate about what materials are currently most cost-effective and environmentally important to recycle, that should not distract us from the goal of creating a cradle-to-cradle society, that is, one in which all products are designed to be converted into other materials or products at the end of their useful lives. The consequence of such design is practically zero waste.

Of course, it's no wonder that waste haulers are not particularly interested in a zero landfill goal since it would leave their existing landfills without customers.

But one simple policy change could make recycling much more attractive, even in times of low commodity prices. Tax trash. Tax anything that is dumped in a landfill. The higher the tax, the more likely someone will figure out how to 1) minimize waste in the first place and 2) recycle what waste remains more efficiently.

Any mention of a tax on trash would undoubtedly cause the lobbyists for waste haulers to darken the skies over Washington, state capitols or city halls where the mention was made. But that doesn't make a trash tax any less of a good idea as a way to get us all focused on the real goal: less trash, more recycling, and, with what we cannot currently recycle, energy generation using best practices.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at


Ken Barrows said...

It's been covered in college economics courses for years: externalities. When the discussion starts on externalities, it gets very political.

Craig Morris said...

Kurt, I wish I had seen your work before writing this:

It would have been nice to refer back to your 2014 piece on Germany landfilling 1% of its waste. Anyway, keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

So private landfills that are operated cleanly and efficiently have significantly lower disposal costs – and this is a bad thing? Saving citizens major $$?

The good old days of municipal landfills? High cost plus unlined landfills contaminating groundwater. The good old days when laws were not in place to keep industrial toxic materials out of municipal landfills. It is these old municipal landfills that are today’s superfund sites.

Germany recycles!! Great. Look into the cost of waste management in Germany. It is 3 to 4 times the $$ in US. Your can do a lot of recycling at $200 per ton. American taxpayers not on board however. Bottom line, the only resource we are short of is $$$. Why waste those?

You say we should design a system for cheap recycling rather than cheap landfilling. Please, where is there a system of cheap recycling. Germany charges $200 ton for disposal, so yes, recycling is cheaper. But not less than cheap landfilling.

You like incineration. Contaminants are spewed into the air and dispersed into the environment. In landfills, the waste is contained.

Regarding environmental impacts, these large corporate facdilities are municipal solid waste landfills. The waste comes from citizens like you and me. Most of the waste is biodegradable food, paper and wood. Some is inert and stable wastes such as plastic. A very small percentage is “toxic or hazardous” mostly from household chemical residues. Think of the landfill as a compost pile, not a hazardous industrial waste dump. To the extent landfills generate concentrated leachate that could contaminate water, it is from organic materials (food waste, etc.) that will degrade quickly. Long term the risk of contamination is quite small.

Yes, liners will eventually leak. Actually they will always leak, because the materials and construction cannot be perfect, as they are products of fallible men. But leakage is at levels that are so small as to not even be detectible in groundwater and surface water. Defects and damage to liners could be caused during construction and initial disposal operations on the liners. Once a thickness of waste is in place, it is not physically possible to damage the liners as the waste layer is protected. How long will the liners last? Best estimate is about 1000 years, afterwhich the liners become brittle and crack. At this point all of the degradable material has done so, with only trace levels of any dangerous chemicals remaining. This is not a dangerous or harmful condition, and there is no potential for harm to the environment or public health.

Lastly methane. Yes, landfills generate methane. What you do not mention is these large private landfills are required to have a Title V air permit that essentially prohibits emissions of methane and hazardous air pollutants. Yes, some small percentage of methane escapes, but almost all is captured and combusted, usually to generate electricity and heat. More importantly, landfills are large carbon sinks that reduce CO2 levels in the atmosphere. Carbon in the landfill in the form of food, paper and wood came from the atmosphere. After degrading, most remains in the landfill as a compost like material, therefore sequestering carbon and lowering, not raising, atmospheric levels of CO2. Any fossil fuel based wastes in the landfill are in the form of plastic that will remain in the landfill forever and not be released into the atmosphere. Not so in incinerators that burn this plastic. So in total landfills are quite large carbon sinks, and do not contribute to global warming.

Kurt Cobb said...

Thanks to all commenters and especially to Anonymous for his detailed critique. Unfortunately, Anonymous tells us what we already know: We have built an infrastructure in the United States for cheap landfilling rather than cheap recycling and this is just the problem I'm suggesting we need to address. Anonymous's entire focus is actually on money rather than the long-term sustainability of society. Is he speaking on behalf of private landfill owners for he makes the arguments they would make?

Anonymous is excellent at creating straw men to rail against. He implies that I prefer poorly run and maintained landfills when I actually prefer no landfilling at all. He states that I like incineration. But again, I make no such statement. In fact, I state that I prefer a cradle-to-cradle society with no waste disposal or incineration at all. For an advocate of landfilling, I can see how such a goal would be truly galling. So, of course, anonymous makes no mention of it at all. I merely list incineration as an expedient until we achieve cradle-to-cradle design so that we do not waste the available energy and avoid landfilling.

He tells us "Contaminants are spewed into the air and dispersed into the environment" with incineration. Certainly, this is not the case in Germany where the emissions are strictly controlled as they should be wherever waste is incinerated.

Now probably the most important point that Anonymous makes is that landfills are carbon sinks. I do not know of any evidence that confirms that the net effect of landfilling is to entomb carbon. However, I can see the logic of his position. But that logic also implies a throwaway society in which we continually produce an ever greater number of things which are single-use or which get very few uses and then are thrown away. In the process of producing and transporting these things we create greenhouse gases and deplete valuable nonrenewable resources. Landfilling simply encourages this loop which far from helping us solve the climate problem only exacerbates it.

If we were require all manufacturers to take back all products they manufacture, I can all but guarantee that they would make products which are far more durable and/or easy to recycle or reuse. But, I suppose this prospect is even more frightening to apologists for landfills than any other method of dealing with what we currently call waste.