The idea that “recycling is the right thing to do” is no longer relevant to most Americans. So says Candy Cox of DDB Bass & Howes, a Seattle-based advertising agency. Cox's somewhat startling conclusion, which she presented at last year's National Recycling Coalition (NRC) conference, is based on a survey of 3,500 recycling customers.

Recycling's image suffers from the perception that the practice is difficult or inconvenient, Cox says. In tough economic times, recycling can be both costly and confusing for residents, who may not want to be bothered. “It's hard to sell something that needs consistent and constant activity without a recognizable reward,” she says.

Cox says recycling needs to be marketed like any other product. Advocates who want to expand recycling's customer base should follow the formula established by major companies who constantly update their products' images.

Creating a recycling program 20 years ago required little more than a leap of environmental faith. As the process gained a foothold in communities, its advocates began pushing ambitious goals to boost recycling rates, achieve zero waste, collect all types of materials and encourage buying recycled products. But in the current economic times, potential problems, such as flat markets for recyclables, become deal-breakers. Today, local governments are more likely to be crunching numbers and asking tough business questions before they adopt, expand or cut back their recycling programs.

Charting new routes

Cities and counties have long known that recycling is popular, if not always profitable, because people feel good about themselves when they participate. Because of that, starting, changing or stopping a recycling program is a difficult decision for local governments, with far-reaching consequences — a fact New York discovered when it recently curtailed and then resumed its recycling program (see “New York reverses recycling path,” on p. 37).

Kansas City, Mo., finally has plunged into recycling, after years of watching other cities launch and maintain their programs. In March, the city began its RecycleFirst curbside recycling program in 75 neighborhoods; the service is expected to expand to all households by December. As an incentive to recycle, only two trash bags per week will be picked up for free, with additional bags sold at $1 each. The concept behind such pay-as-you-throw systems is that residents will resist paying extra for ordinary trash disposal and will recycle, rather than landfill, their waste. As a result, the city will save enough money to pay for recycling collection.

The decision in Kansas City was long in coming even though a recent survey showed that 80 percent of its residents support recycling. However, voters have shot down previous attempts to institute curbside recycling programs because the plans either limited trash to just one bag or the costs for additional bags were too high. This time, the city is relying on a widespread public education program, led by Kansas City's Bridging the Gap organization, to encourage participation in RecycleFirst. The new recycling program will be implemented in phases to give residents time to understand it.

City officials are cautiously optimistic that the program will be successful. The city spends around $8 million annually for trash collection and disposal for about 145,000 households. Officials are hoping that RecycleFirst will divert as much as 25 percent of the city's solid waste, which would lower its collection and disposal costs by $1.7 million yearly — enough to cover curbside collection.

In the first four weeks of the program, according to Bridging the Gap, more than 237 tons of recyclables were collected, with residents increasing the amount they recycled each week. “We are seeing great participation in most neighborhoods, and the vast majority of residents are becoming accustomed to the new program,” says John Stufflebean, director of the city's Department of Environmental Management.

When Cincinnati officials recommended eliminating curbside recycling to save money, the mayor's office was flooded with calls and e-mails protesting the change. In response, the city council recently announced plans to cut 27 municipal employees instead, resulting in $2 million in annual savings, most of which will be used to continue recycling for another year. “Every effort was made to avoid affecting direct services,” says City Manager Valerie Lemmie. “However, reductions in administrative functions such as procurement, human resources and financial management will challenge our capacity to support the city's operations.”

Recycling's advocates are often vocal, but is the service more popular in theory than it is in practice? According to the Columbus-based Ohio Department of Natural Resources, residential participation in Cincinnati's recycling program dropped from 38 to 34 percent from 2001 to 2002, which means that only about 51,000 households regularly recycle. As a result, some city council members say the voluntary program may not be popular enough to withstand lean budget times.

Other communities remain resistant to curbside recycling. In Atwater, Calif., the city's 26,000 residents currently are deciding whether to implement a curbside recycling program. Analysts have estimated that a recycling program would reduce the amount of waste being landfilled but at an additional monthly cost of $3.68 for residents, which might be somewhat lower if a transfer station were nearby. In addition, studies have shown that only about 115 Atwater residents make the effort to recycle. “I'm just not a recycler,” a councilman said at a recent meeting. “One hundred and fifteen people should not make everyone be charged $45 a year.”

Balancing costs, benefits

In response to the recycling costs, advocates always have cited its environmental benefits, including reducing the amount of waste buried in landfills and saving the energy required to process virgin materials. Yet the monetary value of such benefits varies and may be difficult or impossible to discern. In light of that, how can communities truly estimate the recycling costs?

The St. Louis-Jefferson Solid Waste Management District answered that question by recently commissioning the St. Louis Recycling Economic Information Study, which was conducted by the University of Missouri-St. Louis and modeled after a study conducted by the NRC in 2001. The study found that recycling in the St. Louis metropolitan area provides nearly 16,000 jobs and generates nearly $5 billion a year in revenues. In addition, the St. Louis recycling industry includes nearly 1,500 businesses, which generate an annual payroll of about $640 million. Revenues and payroll figures exceed those of several other local industries.

Perhaps part of St. Louis' success can be attributed to selling its program. The district's public outreach program focuses on recycling economics and, among other things, has produced a booklet, “Less is More: A Guide to Reducing Waste & Improving Profits,” aimed at businesses. The guide frames recycling in monetary terms that appeal to the bottom line. “Most people are aware of the environmental benefits of recycling, but the significant economic value is often overlooked,” says Dave Berger, executive director of the district.

To determine the feasibility and potential profitability of a local recycling program, researchers at North Carolina A&T State University examined options for its area, as well as for six counties to the Southeast, known as the Sandhills. In a recently released report, “Recycling Climate and Markets for the Sandhills Region in N.C.,” the study notes that a cooperative or regional approach to recycling likely would be the most successful. For example, creating a recycling consortium among Fort Bragg, Fayetteville and Cumberland County would keep transportation costs low while boosting collection rates, the report states.

In the end, however, some say that costs and revenues may not be as important to recycling as the economists claim. One option, a recent Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer article noted, could be for residents and government officials to view recycling as a necessary service that does not need to generate revenue to be worthwhile. Nevertheless, the money to fund recycling has to come from somewhere. Whether it should come from taxpayers' pockets or from other local budgets is one of the toughest decisions cities and counties can make.

Kim A. O'Connell is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.

New York reverses recycling path

In 2002, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg outraged environmentalists and recycling advocates when he announced plans to curtail glass and plastic recycling in the city as a budget-cutting measure. That year, New Yorkers were spending up to $48 per ton more to recycle their waste than it cost to landfill or incinerate it, according to a report by the city's Independent Budget Office. In response, a spokesman for the mayor noted that the report proved that “evaluating recycling has to be based upon an analysis of the overall cost of the program.”

Despite the report's findings, however, Bloomberg announced in March that New York would reinstate glass recycling and return to weekly recycling collections. Plastic recycling, which resumed in mid-2003, and metal and paper recycling, which was never suspended, will continue as well. Once again, city officials cited shifting economic realities as the reason for the return to full recycling.

The city also said that the suspension gave vendors time to reconfigure their operations to be more efficient and cost-effective. Recyclables now can be collected at $51 per ton, city officials report, which is about half of what it cost before the suspension. “Two years ago the city faced the most severe fiscal crisis in a generation,” Bloomberg says. “Costs were skyrocketing, and materials that should have been recycled ended up in landfills…[Now] we've found a more cost-effective and environmentally sound way to recycle.”

However, New York suffered a major public-relations blow when recycling was suspended. Almost overnight, city residents had to change their waste disposal practices. Now that recycling has returned in full force, the city plans to mount a major public outreach effort to inform residents about the new recycling procedures, which require the commingling of glass, plastic and metal items. The New York Times declared that “New Yorkers are unprepared” for the return of full recycling. “Experience has shown that consistency and adequate information are two of the most important factors in a recycling program's success. But New York's recycling efforts have never had a surplus of either,” the Times said.

The New York-based Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has expressed concerns about the city's ability to revitalize recycling, saying a “turbo-charged public education program” is needed. In 2001, even before recycling was suspended, NRDC produced a survey that showed most New Yorkers were confused about recycling procedures, which was hampering the program's effectiveness and wasting money. Yet Vito Turso, deputy commissioner of the Sanitation Department, says that returning to a weekly schedule should make it easier for most New Yorkers to resume recycling. Whether that is true, and whether suspending recycling was truly worth the costs of resuming it, remains to be seen.
Kim A. O'Connell