America’s Crisis of Confidence with Recycling

Residential recycling programs represent one of the most visible opportunities for everyday citizens to engage in sustainable practices. In the US, some are calling into question whether providing households with these services is worth the price and the effort. A closer look is warranted.
America’s Crisis of Confidence with Recycling
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Growing up in the 1970s and 80s, once or twice a week we would tote our bags or cans of trash to the curb in front of the house, stacking as much as we wanted, and as sure as the postman, a clamorous truck would show up, and the crew would haul all our garbage away. For me, recycling was saving our aluminum cans and glass deposit bottles until we had enough stockpiled to make it worth our while to visit the redemption center.

My kids and my students have grown up with a very different outlook on the management of the family’s solid waste. Sure, a truck still drives by the house to collect the garbage, but we must use a designated waste receptacle, and instead of a worker lifting and tossing our waste into the back of truck, the driver never leaves the cab and, instead, operates a mechanical arm to collect the cart’s contents. Furthermore, a separate truck passes by the house to pick up all the recyclables that the family has diligently separated from the rest of the trash, presumably to be used as a raw ingredient in new products.

This staple of everyday life in America — curbside recycling — is the subject of ever-growing angst. Citing a variety of reasons, a surprising number of local governments have eliminated or curtailed their curbside recycling programs in the US, and this, along with frequent media reports on the “failure of recycling,” point to America’s crisis of confidence with recycling.

To provide context to the debate regarding the value and role that curbside recycling plays in the management of residential solid waste, my colleague, Dr. Malak Anshassi, and I set out to critically examine several key questions of importance to decision makers. The results of this study came out today in Nature Sustainability (https://www.nature.com/articles/s41893-023-01122-8).

The first question relates to the economics of curbside recycling: Does it cost more for a local government to operate (or contract) a curbside recycling program compared to only collecting garbage for disposal? The answer depends on several factors, the most volatile among these is the market value for separated commodities. It comes down to a simple equation. Does the cost to collect recyclables at the curb plus the cost to extract individual commodities from this mixed materials stream exceed the market value of the recovered commodities? Even when accounting for the disposal fees that would have to be paid if they were not recycled, the answer in most cases is yes. If we all took our recyclables, separated them by commodity, and dropped them off at a central location, we would not be having this conversation. But convenience comes with a price, though arguably not an excessive price. As an example, we estimate that for the US in 2020, providing curbside waste collection that included separate collection for garbage and recyclables cost local governments $218 annually per household, while it cost $178 if all the material was collected and managed as garbage. An added $40 per year (per household) would be required to include curbside recycling.

But if the value of recovered commodities is high enough, couldn’t a point be reached where a curbside recycling program becomes a revenue generator? Has this ever occurred in the US? Our analysis finds that when markets were at their peak in 2011, recycling essentially paid for itself. It wasn’t a revenue source, but the value extracted from recyclables roughly covered the cost of separate collection and processing.

As stated above, the cost of curbside recycling depends heavily on the commodity markets, but our estimates suggest that during the worst market conditions over the past 15 years, added costs for a local government to provide curbside recycling for a typical household (instead of only disposal) were $42 per year, and during the best conditions, the costs were less than $5.

If curbside recycling costs money, why do it? The original recycling programs were not designed as revenue sources. They were implemented to meet societal resource conservation goals. These goals haven’t changed, though they’ve expanded to embrace a broader suite of sustainability objectives. Curbside recycling should be considered a public service, one that provides environmental and quality-of-life benefits, similar to myriad other initiatives that local governments provide to meet the collective desires of their populace.

In our analysis, we estimate the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction benefits associated with recycling and find that curbside recycling (at a 20% recycling rate) essentially offsets GHG emissions associated with disposal (roughly half of US residential waste is still landfilled). This is not a new finding. When we integrate this with our cost data, however, the results suggest that a local government’s investment in recycling provides a return on investment (in units of metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalence per additional USD dollar spent) on par with other sustainability measures. Examples include preferential green energy purchase or hybrid/electricity fleet conversion, even under poor recycling commodity conditions. When markets are better, the return improves.

So yes, in most cases, providing the typical US home with curbside recycling will cost the local government anywhere from a few dollars to $40-$50 per year (per household), depending on market conditions, but this investment produces quantifiable environmental advantages (we only touched on one of them).

A final question we attempted to answer relates to future options. Can curbside recycling programs be adapted to lower costs and provide an even better return on environmental investment? Absolutely. The key, which we expect may be unpopular with some avid recyclers, is to better target what is captured — put less in the recycling bin. Well-meaning Americans notoriously place too many of the wrong items in the recycling container. This comes from our ever-diversifying waste stream, disparate program requirements, and often an inherent reluctance to place anything in the garbage can (a common refrain: if it’s plastic, it must be recyclable). But the more materials in the back of that recycling truck that must be removed and disposed of, the greater the recycling cost. Some local and state governments have initiated efforts to work with all levels of the recycling chain to focus the message and educate consumers.

We examined several hypothetical examples in our paper. In one strategy, only commodities with higher market value and environmental benefit end up in the recycling bin (we picked aluminum and steel cans, cardboard, newspaper, PET and HDPE plastic containers). We estimated for such a program, assuming nearly all materials are captured from the waste stream, the total curbside waste collection costs per household to a local government would be $174 per year compared $178 when all materials were collected and disposed of as garbage. Granted, it is a major hill to climb to increase participation and to educate the users of curbside systems to only put the right materials in the bin, but it helps make the point that instead of axing curbside recycling, the system should be refined and improved.  And for some locations, paying more to include a wider range of recyclables in their curbside program may be desired to meet other objectives, e.g., preserving valuable and limited landfill space.

I would argue that curbside recycling hasn’t failed. It was never intended to be a revenue generator — the goal of these programs sprung from a desire for resource conservation. And these programs were never intended to recycle everything, only a focused subset of materials with relatively steady, though understandably fluctuating, commodity markets. Curbside recycling needs to be thought of as a public service, and like others that enhance our quality of life, it often comes at a cost. But if done right, these costs are arguably small in comparison to the benefits accrued.

Postscript: Of course, the preferred option for addressing our waste stream is to reduce our incessant consumption of products (of “stuff”) and the raw materials they require. And we must bring the product manufacturers into the responsibility chain when it comes to making our waste easier to separate and recycle. But moving toward this path should be conducted hand in hand with providing well-designed curbside recycling programs to a generation that has grown up with them.

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