Policy Study

Solid Waste Recycling Costs

Issues and Answers

Executive Summary

By the late 1980s, concern that the United States was “running out of landfill space” had reached crisis dimensions. In addition, some environmental commentators forecast that we would “run out of resources” if present consumption patterns persisted. These twin concerns prompted a dramatic shift toward increased recycling. By 1995, nearly all states had implemented laws requiring or encouraging household and commercial recycling. The number of curbside recycling programs in the United States jumped from a few hundred to over 7,000 in a five-year period from 1989 to 1994.

The advent of these curbside recycling programs generated both applause and controversy. Few observers of the changing waste management scene opposed the basic concept of recycling; however, many critics raised the specter that curbside recycling programs were costly. Some local government officials, already facing financial constraints, began to claim that recycling programs cost more than traditional waste collection and disposal. Claims that recycling was costly escalated when a rapid influx of materials collected in the new recycling programs resulted in steep declines in scrap values of materials.

Instead of receiving as much as $60 or more per ton of recycled materials (in the aggregate), they began receiving as little as $15 or $20 per ton. This decline in receipts from sale of recyclables meant local recyclers received much lower revenues to offset program costs than had been anticipated. The result? A vigorous debate over the costs and merits of the new-fangled recycling programs. Just four years after the rapid increase in curbside recycling programs, the cost picture has undergone a fairly dramatic shift. The aggregate scrap value of a typical ton of municipal waste brought in as much as $100 per ton in some instances. Thus, instead of a meager $15 to $20, program operators were receiving four-to fivefold higher revenues from the sale of materials.

This hefty increase in revenues has — at least temporarily — changed the cost picture for curbside recycling. Where programs had generated net costs of, say, $150 per ton of materials collected, they were costing well under $100 per ton by 1995. The very low costs of traditional waste collection and landfilling in some areas still made recycling the moreexpensive option for some communities. However, in other communities recycling became increasingly competitive — from a cost standpoint — as a waste-management alternative. This brief saga demonstrates the pitfalls of answering the question: “what does recycling cost?”

Recycling costs vary over time, depending on scrap values as well as on a learning curve in providing recycling services. They also vary significantly depending on demographics, program design, whether service is publicly or privately provided, and what materials are collected. Despite the vagaries of recycling costs, several basic comments about recycling costs and the dynamics that drive those costs can help policymakers — and citizens — sort out facts from fancy.

If anything conclusive can be said in response to the question”what does recycling cost?,” it is that “it all depends.” Recycling costs depend on time, place, and circumstance. The following series of questions were posed as part of a Paper Task Force project conduced by the Environmental Defense Fund and several private-sector firms and institutions. The responses were prepared in the context of that project.