China wants LA’s waste paper?

A debate on municipal recycling pros and cons (and an interesting case of Smith vs. Smith) from a recent article in the Orlando Weekly by Deanna Sheffield raises an interesting point (or three):

After decades of warning about greenhouse gas emissions and global warming, and stressing the importance of the three R’s ââ?¬â?? reducing, reusing and recycling ââ?¬â?? the EPA is far less interested in the economics of recycling than the perceived effect it will have on the environment. “Recycling is still needed,” the EPA’s [Roxanne] Smith says. “Waste reduction practices and recycling reduce the demand for resources, specifically raw material and energy, conserving resources and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Similarly, resources are saved and greenhouse gas emissions avoided when recycled materials are used in place of virgin materials.” Smith says it takes almost twice the process energy to manufacture newspaper from new fiber as opposed to recycled materials (though, as Wiseman notes, recycling newsprint creates more pollution than using virgin pulp). She also emphasizes that the benefit of recycling is clearly reflected in the commodity value of recycled materials. “For example, paper is in such high demand overseas that it has become the single largest volume commodity exported through Los Angeles ports,” Smith says. “Currently, the supply of recycled paper cannot keep pace with the demand from both domestic and foreign paper mills, driving commodity prices to near-record highs.” But she acknowledges that recycling programs aren’t going to win any awards from an economic feasibility standpoint. “Recycling costs money, but so does waste disposal,” Smith says, noting that communities should be able to assess how each option will play out “through a full appraisal of the environmental and economic benefits and costs of recycling, as compared to the one-way consumption of resources from disposing of used products and packaging in landfills and incinerators.” Dumping garbage into a landfill is not only cheaper, but often it just makes more sense when all the factors are taken into consideration, says Smith-Heisters of the Reason Foundation. “When and where recycling makes sense, you’ll often find collection centers open voluntarily,” she says. “For local government leaders and people interested in boosting recycling and waste diversion rates, curbside recycling is probably the last option they should consider.”

If China really wants waste paper from Los Angeles that badly, maybe everyone in Hollywood should consider a change of careers! Or, maybe there’s another explanation. The major market in recycling/reuse out of California ports isn’t waste paper, it is shipping containers. It is economical to send waste paper, obsolete electronics, and other recyclable materials overseas because most of the containers coming into Long Beach, LA and Oakland would be heading back empty otherwise. It also helps that the materials head for recycling centers where daily wages tend to be less than U.S. hourly wages and occupational safety and environmental standards are all significantly lower–but hitch-hiking the across the ocean in empty cargo containers is key. With this added context, the U.S. export of recyclable materials only bolsters Sheffield’s conclusion, that “Curbside recycling doesn’t pay for itself on a county, state or national level. It is inefficient, and its very existence is predicated on cheap energy.” Supporters of recycling subsidies, like Roxanne Smith of the Environmental Protection Agency, often do so on the premise that these subsidies are needed to balance against environmental subsidies, such as free greenhouse gas emissions in the energy-intensive virgin paper pulping industry. When greenhouse gas emissions are priced, as they most likely will be in the near future, it will be interesting to revisit the balance sheet for recycling subsidies. Still, that ignores another ugly imbalance in the world of recycling subsidies. The expressed purpose of these subsides is to act as a sort of “great equalizer” between materials like corrugated cardboard and aluminum, for which market demand in many cases actually exists, and materials that we as taxpayers have to pay to get rid of–at every step of the way–until we ultimately buy them back. That’s a terrible price to pay for materials that likely aren’t just economic losers, but environmental losers, too. Full article here.

Skaidra Smith-Heisters is a policy analyst at Reason Foundation, a nonprofit think tank advancing free minds and free markets.