Trash is on the legislative radar screen — again. In 1997, California's legislators proposed several bills that tinker with trash. Many of these bills have one goal: boost recycling.
No one likes waste. But the perpetual push to meet the waste challenge through mandates and regulations is wrongheaded. Recycling is often a good idea. Mandates are not.
By state law, California cities must soon divert 50 percent of waste away from disposal facilities. Yet these cities face widely varying situations. For example, rural communities often find it more costly to implement aggressive recycling programs than some suburban and urban communities. Even within San Diego County, costs to recycle vary among rural, urban and suburban areas. Mandates don't give communities adequate flexibility to determine what makes economic and environmental sense.
The waste stream is not a homogeneous and uniformly recyclable or compostable mass of material. A Duke University symposium on waste and recycling estimated that 35 percent to 40 percent of the waste stream might be composted and recycled at reasonable cost using current technologies and infrastructure. Specific communities may (and are) exceeding 40 percent diversion rates at reasonable costs, but their circumstances do not apply to all California communities.
The city of San Diego estimates that current curbside recycling programs, which serve less than half of all residences, lose $1 million per year. Extending that service to all households could cost the city $8 million to $10 million, unless citizens pay a direct fee for recycling service.
California's waste-diversion mandates generate more supplies of recyclable stuff — sometimes at a cost to cities. These supplies create pressures for new regulations mandating that manufacturers use recycled content. California already mandates use of recycled content in plastic bags, newsprint and some glass and plastic containers.
Yet these end-user mandates are not environmentally or economically beneficial. Proponents of mandates hope they will boost prices of recyclables to help offset city costs for curbside programs. And they believe mandates are necessary to create a sustainable, resource-conserving economy.
Resource conservation is important. Sometimes recycling does result in resource and energy conservation relative to use of virgin materials. But recycling is not always the best environmental choice.
A Public Policy Institute study demonstrates that under certain circumstances, recycled content produces net benefits; under other circumstances it does not. Our analysis of different materials shows benefits from using modest levels of recycled content in many instances. But whether recycled content makes sense depends on the product. And where recycling does save resources, many manufacturers already use recycled content without government intervention.
There simply is no single formula in the resource-conservation process. Many conservation efforts take place in small, almost invisible and difficult-to-regulate steps. These little steps have big consequences. For example, one juice company reduced the size of its package by 10 percent. This reduction saved 20,000 pounds of material, 500 truckloads of outgoing freight, 20,000 pallets, 7,000 pounds of shrink wrap and 250,000 square feet of chilled warehouse space.
Juggling all the details that determine what mix of resources works best is a persistent challenge for manufacturers. But the competitive marketplace provides a constant impetus to find ways to use fewer resources through price signals. Using less stuff means saving money.
Worried about recycling costs, many local governments now support the idea of "manufacturers' responsibility," in which producers would pay an up-front waste-handling fee on all their products. The idea is that these fees could support recycling programs and might give manufacturers more incentive to reduce packaging or "design for recycling."
Yet our study of such fees in Germany shows that overall reductions in packaging in Germany were not very different from the United States, which has no special packaging fees. A basket of typical U.S. grocery products went from over 2,750 pounds per gross production unit in 1989 to approximately 2,100 in 1993-94. In Europe, including Germany, packaging materials use went from just over 2,500 pounds per gross production unit to just under 2,100 — only marginally better than U.S. accomplishments.
There are lots of things California could do to nudge recycling along without imposing high costs on cities or inadvertently wasting resources. The state could maintain a waste-diversion goal — as many other states have done, but eliminate the mandate so each city could figure out what makes sense.
Following an Indiana model, the state could encourage cities to use business-based accounting methods, so that they could better identify cost-saving opportunities in their recycling programs. Better still, the state could encourage (but not mandate) competitive contracting of recycling and waste-handling. Private haulers usually can provide recycling service at lower cost — and they often have access to broader markets for the stuff they collect.
California could also borrow an idea from the state of Washington. There, rather than mandating recycled content, the state's Clean Washington Center provides technical assistance where using recycled stuff looks promising.
All these ideas harness, rather than shackle, the private sector. And they provide to cities and manufacturers the kind of flexibility they need to select the best options for environmental progress.
Lynn Scarlett is president of Reason Foundation.