ELIAS ROHAS is a garbage hauler in Seattle. He works for Rabanco/Allied Waste Industries and his beat is Magnolia, the city's tony westernmost neighborhood. According to the Seattle Times, Rohas has been on the job 14 years. He slowly cruises Magnolia streets, using his truck's mechanical arm to lift and dump curbside garbage bins.
Since the first of the year Rohas has enjoyed a new responsibility, one shared by Seattle policemen: he can officially determine who is breaking the law, and issue a ticket.
On January 1, placing more than 10 percent recyclable materials into a garbage bin became illegal in Seattle. An offending bin is tagged with a bright yellow slip that announces, "Recycle. It's not garbage anymore." The un-emptied bin is then left at the curb in hopes that the homeowner will learn the lesson and remove the reusable material by next week's collection. Businesses that offend three times are fined $50.
Seattle's proudly progressive leaders were alarmed when, almost two decades after voluntary recycling programs were initiated in the city--recycling rates had stalled at about 40 percent of the total amount of waste. Too many bottles and too much paper were still finding their way to the eastern Oregon landfill that receives Seattle's garbage.
So after a year-long $450,000 television, radio and newspaper education campaign, the mandatory recycling law went into effect at the first of the year. The goal is to raise the percentage of recyclables to sixty percent of total waste. Seattle is not alone, of course; many other cities, from Philadelphia to Honolulu, also have mandatory recycling programs. But these laws are based on myth and followed as faith.
RECYCLING FEELS RIGHT. Echoing widespread Seattle sentiment (85 percent of the city's citizens approve of curbside recycling), the Seattle Times editorial board has concluded that "Recycling is a good thing." After all, using a bottle twice must be better than using it once, saving resources and sparing the landfill.
The truth, though, is that recycling is an expense, not a savings, for a city. "Every community recycling program in America today costs more than the revenue it generates," says Dr. Jay Lehr of the Heartland Institute.
A telling indicator is that cities often try to dump recycling programs when budgets are tight. As Angela Logomasini, director of risk and environmental policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, points out in the Wall Street Journal, every New York City mayor has attempted to stop the city's recycling program since it was begun in 1989. Mayor David Dinkins tried, but changed his mind when met with noisy criticism. Rudy Giuliani tried, but was sued by the Natural Resources Defense Council, which won the case. Mayor Bloomberg has proposed temporarily ending the recycling program because, as Logomasini notes, it costs $240 per ton to recycle and only $130 per ton to send the material to a landfill. The numbers for other areas are roughly comparable. The net per-ton cost of recycling exceeds $180 in Rhode Island, while conventional garbage collection and disposal costs $120 to $160 per ton.
The funds go for trucks and collectors and inspectors and bureaucrats. Clemson professor Daniel K. Benjamin points out that Los Angeles has 800 trucks working the neighborhoods, instead of 400, due to recycling. Radley Balko at aBetterEarth.Org, a project of the Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University, writes, "That means extra wear and tear on city streets, double the exhaust emissions into the atmosphere, double the man hours required for someone to drive and man those trucks, and double the costs of maintenance and upkeep of the trucks." Jerry Taylor of the Cato Institute says costs include "the energy necessary to deliver the recyclables to the collection centers, process the post-consumer material into usable commodities for manufacturers, and deliver the processed post-consumer material to manufacturing plants." Franklin Associates, which provides consulting services for solid waste management, estimates that curbside recycling is 55 percent more expensive, pound for pound, than conventional garbage disposal.
CITY BUDGETS aren't the only victims of recycling. Citizens also have a significant cost--their time. Seattle Public Utilities researchers (in collaboration with University of California, Davis) conducted a survey in 2005 that indicated 98 percent of Seattle households participate in the curbside recycling program, and that 16 minutes are spent recycling per household. The city contains 260,000 households, which means each week Seattleites spend almost 8,500 work days recycling. Working days lost in traffic jams are commonly cited by proponents of HOV lanes, bike paths, and light rail. Nary a word is heard about lost time when the topic is recycling.
And what are those 16 minutes spent doing? Sorting, extracting, rinsing, bundling, and stomping. In Seattle, household batteries can be put into the garbage, but not rechargeable batteries. Plastic soda bottles can be recycled, but not plastic flower pots. Plastic shopping bags go into the recycle bin (bundle them first), but not plastic produce bags or plastic freezer wrap bags. Plastic cottage cheese tubs, yes, but not plastic six-pack rings. Frozen food boxes go into the recycle bin, but not paper plates. Cardboard, sure, but not if a pizza came in it, and make sure to flatten the box. And remove any tape. Cereal boxes, yes, but pull out the liner. Typing paper, of course, but sort out the paper punch holes, as those little dots can't be recycled. Hardback books, okay, but wrestle off the covers. Metal hangers, yes: aluminum foil, no. Tin cans, you bet, but rinse them, and push the lid down into the can. No loose lids can go in the recycle bin. And no confetti.
So at least it's a fun 16 minutes. There are out-of-pocket expenses, too: Rod Kauffman, president of the Building Owners and Managers Association of Seattle and King County, says this sorting will add 10 percent to a building's janitorial bills.
IF WE WEREN'T RECYCLING, wouldn't the landfills soon overflow? Al Gore certainly thinks so, as he claimed we are "running out of ways to dispose of our waste in a manner that keeps it out of either sight or mind." Nonsense. Clemson Professor Daniel K. Benjamin notes that rather than running out of space, overall capacity is growing. "In fact," he says, "the United States today has more landfill capacity than ever before." He adds that the total land area required to contain every scrap of this country's garbage for the next 100 years would be only 10 miles square. The Nevada Policy Research Institute's numbers are even more dramatic: an area 44 miles square and 120 feet deep would handle all of America's garbage for the next millennium.
America's image of landfills was fixed decades ago, and is that of Staten Island's Fresh Kills, a vast swampy expanse of detritus, with huge Caterpillar tractors trundling over it, and clouds of seagulls obscuring everything above ground. Fresh Kills received New York's garbage for 53 years before it was closed in 2001. Modern landfills have nothing in common with the place. Benjamin says that new landfills are located far from groundwater supplies, and are built on thick clay beds that are covered with plastic liners, on top of which goes another layer of sand or gravel. Pipes remove leachate, which is then treated at wastewater plants. Escaping gas is burned or sold. A park or golf course or industrial development eventually goes over the landfill.
Fresh Kills also looked dangerous, a veritable soup of deadly poisons and nasty chemicals, seeping and dissolving and dispersing. But that's not the case with new landfills. Daniel Benjamin writes, "According to the EPA's own estimates, modern landfills can be expected to cause 5.7 cancer-related deaths over the next 300 years--just one death every 50 years. To put this in perspective, cancer kills over 560,000 people every year in the United States."
But what about saving precious resources by recycling? Almost 90 percent of this country's paper comes from renewable forests, and to say we will someday run out of trees is the same as saying we will some day run out of corn. According to Jerry Taylor, we are growing 22 million acres of new forest each year, and we harvest 15 million acres, for a net annual gain of 7 million acres. The United States has almost four times more forested land today than it did 80 years ago.
Are we running out of that other staple of recycle bins, glass? All those wine and beer bottles are manufactured from silica dioxide, the fancy term for sand, which Jay Lehr points out is the most abundant mineral in the earth's crust.
Nor will we ever suffer a shortage of plastic, which is made from petroleum byproducts. Today more petroleum reserves are being discovered than are being used up. And plastics can now also be synthesized from farm products. Lehr concludes, "We are not running out of, nor will we ever run out of, any of the resources we recycle."
Why then do we go to all this trouble for so little--or no--reward? Lehr says it's because "we get a warm and fuzzy feeling when we recycle." Richard Sandbrook who was executive director of the International Institute for Environment and Development, said, "Environmentalists refuse to countenance any argument which undermines their sacred cow."
The Seattle Times concludes, "Recycling is almost a religion in Seattle." An irrational religion, says Professor Frank Ackerman, who specializes in environment policy at Tufts University. But his arguments cut little weight here in the Northwest. We attend the church of recycling, where perfervid faith compensates for lack of factual support.
Seattle Public Utilities estimates that 1 in 10 garbage bins will contain too much recyclable material, and so will be left full on the curb. Hauler Elias Rohas said they aren't hard to spot. "We can tell right away," he told the Times. He said the sound of glass is unmistakable, and that paper adds bulk without weight. "You can tell even when it's in the bag."
James Thayer is a frequent contributor to The Daily Standard. His twelfth novel, The Gold Swan, has been published by Simon & Schuster.