No Such Thing as Free Recycling

Lake County, OH – the state’s only recycling district with free curbside pickup – has decided to end its curbside recycling program, long cross-subsidized by a surplus funds generated from a local landfill:

County commissioners, citing the growing cost of subsidizing all or most of a curbside program for 73,000 homes, will announce its end today. . . . . Lake County had provided free curbside service to its residents since 1993, paying for it with a multimillion-dollar surplus accumulated from fees charged at the Kirtland landfill. The county paid $1 per household per month, while cities, villages and townships began to pay 69 cents per month in 2003. That would have increased to $2.25 per household, per month next year, Hodges said. Most local officials told commissioners when polled that the amount would break their budget.

Two thoughts here. First, it makes you wonder what value the recycling program really has when it’s only viable with generous subsidies. This happens all too often in government; see “Amtrak” for the classic case. Second, this seems like a missed opportunity to explore a pay-as-you-throw waste management pricing system, which would create a consumer incentive to recycle and reduce waste and lower long-run system management costs. From Reason’s study:

Variable-rate pricing, or “pay as you throw,” is a new strategy with a growing number of advocates. Under a variable-rate system, customers are provided an economic signal to reduce the waste they throw away because garbage bills increase with the volume or weight of waste they dispose. Variable-rate pricing is being adopted in thousands of communities to create incentives for additional recycling in the residential sector. Variable-rate programs are very flexible and have been implemented by communities in many forms. The most common types of variable-rate programs are can programs, bag programs, tag and sticker programs, and hybrid programs. Other less common programs include weight-based rates…

See the study for more details.