TCS Daily

Recycling Bad Ideas

By C. C. Kraemer - September 6, 2002 12:00 AM

Washington has a nasty habit of recycling bad ideas. Now it's recycling bad ideas about ... recycling.

This latest policy retread comes from Jim Jeffords, chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. If the Vermont independent's National Beverage Producer Responsibility Act - thus far introduced only in the Senate - becomes law, the beverage industry would be saddled with the duty of recycling the millions of bottles and cans that are tossed out each year.

Jeffords, recall, is the former Republican who left the party last year when the Senate was split 50-50, giving the majority to the Democrats. In return, the Democrats gave Jeffords chairmanship of a committee that he coveted along with the power and pulpit he could use to press for legislation that few aside from him and a sprinkling of zealots care about.

Unshackled of his GOP limitations, Jeffords is now free to ring his alarm over declining recycling rates. His crusade gained momentum with a committee hearing over the summer that he opened with a lament that roughly half of the 100 million aluminum cans sold last year were not recycled. Had those 50 million or so cans been recycled, Jeffords nattered, the energy saved would have been the equivalent of 16 million barrels of crude oil, enough to provide electric power for nearly 3 million homes for a year.

The New York Times, in its report on the hearings, gasped that that was enough aluminum to build "about two Empire State Buildings, 3,800 Boeing 747s or nearly half a million Ford Mustangs," never raising the possibility that it might cost less to build those things from raw material than from recycled cans.

Times' readers could have been served by some skepticism on the part of the reporter or an editor along the way. It wouldn't take much thought to ponder questions that challenge Jeffords' assertions and the Times' implications about waste.

If, for instance, that much aluminum was as valuable as the recycling forces are suggesting, if recycling is so energy efficient, wouldn't the industries that reuse old aluminum be clamoring for every last drink can, TV dinner tray and crumpled ball of foil?

The fact that they're not indicates the costs of reusing the 49 million cans tossed out last year were higher than the costs of using new aluminum, the most abundant metal on Earth. If they weren't, the cans wouldn't be thrown away. Yes, aluminum cans are the most recycled consumer product - as well as the most recyclable - and every new drink can is roughly 55 percent recycled material. The fact, though, that nearly half of each can is still virgin material indicates that the industry has determined that the costs of recovering used material for that last 45 percent exceeds the cost of using new material.

One of the costs of recycling is the collection process. It's such an expensive task that the city of New York, in a budget crunch, suspended its recycling program. It couldn't afford the luxury. As the media capital of the world, New York gets inordinate attention, but Jerry Taylor of the Cato Institute assures that it isn't alone in finding that its recycling program has not worked out as planned.

"Mandatory municipal recycling programs across the United States have proven an expensive environmental flop," Taylor wrote in a recent issue of Environment and Climate News.

Another significant cost is the process itself of turning old goods into new ones. It is an intensive industrial activity that requires manpower and energy. It also creates waste that the environment must handle.

Though Jeffords' bill is being sold as a flexible regulatory regime for industry, the dollars will, as they always do, come out of the consumers' pockets. It requires the beverage industry to guarantee that 80 percent of bottles and cans are recycled within two years through a refundable deposit program. It sets a 10-cent minimum deposit for each container. Consumers who find it more convenient to scrap containers rather than recycle them will be forced to pay an extra dime for each drink they buy. And if enough consumers make the same decision, companies won't be able to meet the 80-percent standard. Their penalties, like their taxes, will be passed on to consumers.

To his credit, Jeffords understands that economic incentives are the only way to make a recycling program work. Drink makers knew this years ago and placed their own deposits on glass bottles. Before the widespread usage of plastic, kids could always make a few extra dollars scavenging for bottles and redeeming them at their local store.

But to his discredit, Jeffords fails to recognize that if recycling was as economically efficient as he supposes, the beverage industry would have already implemented a program to get its cans and bottles back from willing consumers whose time and effort would be rewarded.

Recycling simply isn't the virtuous act its advocates contend that it is and in fact may be counterproductive. Five years ago, writing in the New York Times Magazine, contrarian journalist John Tierney declared in a convincing report that "Recycling may be the most wasteful activity in modern America: a waste of time and money, a waste of human and natural resources." If Jeffords is so resolved to reusing old things, then he should start by reading Tierney's five-year-old article and leaving American industry and consumers to sort out recycling.

C.C. Kraemer is a writer living in California.

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