Back to top Jump to featured resources
Article filed under Waste to Wealth, Zero Waste & Economic Development

The Five Most Dangerous Myths About Recycling

| Written by ILSR Admin | No Comments | Updated on Sep 14, 1996 The content that follows was originally published on the Institute for Local Self-Reliance website at

Institute for Local Self-Reliance 2001 S Street NW Suite 570 Washington, DC 20009 Tel: 202-898-1610

MYTH #1:

We can recycle only 25 to 30% of our solid wastes.1

FACT: Twenty five percent was considered a maximum level in 1985. Today it should be considered a minimum, not a maximum. By continuing to build the reuse, recycling, and composting infrastructure and integrating the best features from the best programs – local and state – the nation as a whole can achieve 50% recycling by 2005.

Recycling continues to grow. Between 1980 and 1990, the United States almost doubled its recycling rate from 9% to 17%.2 By 1995, the nation’s recycling rate had jumped to 27%.3 The growth in recycling and composting programs contributed to this dramatic increase. The number of curbside programs grew from 1,000 in 1988 to 7,375 in 1995. During the same period, the number of yard trimmings composting operations increased from 700 to 3,316.4 A dozen states are recycling 30% or more of their municipal solid wastes-Delaware, Florida, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Virginia, and Washington.5 Within these states, hundreds of communities have reached 50% and higher levels. These record-setters are implementing waste prevention strategies, targeting a wide range of materials for recovery, offering convenient service (curbside and drop-off collection are both important), employing collection and processing techniques that encourage resident participation as well as yield high-quality materials, establishing strong economic incentives-particularly volume-based trash rates, collecting source-separated yard waste for composting, encouraging backyard composting, and extending programs beyond the residential sector to the commercial and institutional sectors.6 Programs around the country continue to expand and improve, serving more people and targeting new materials for recovery. The recovery of food discards, textiles, construction and demolition materials, and reusable items, for instance, are all on the rise. Several studies indicate that 60 to 80% of the waste stream is indeed recoverable.7

MYTH #2:

Recycling is more expensive than trash collection and disposal.8

FACT: When designed right, recycling programs are cost-competitive with trash collection and disposal.

The cost of curbside recycling is often compared with the cost of conventional disposal alone, even though the cost of recycling displaces collection as well as disposal costs. The average cost of collection and disposal should be compared to the overall average cost of collection and recovery. When this comparison is made, the economics of recycling and composting often look very impressive. Data from a nationwide survey of 264 recycling programs suggest that recycling is cost-effective once landfill tip fees reach $33 per ton.9 Many recycling and composting programs remain cost-effective at much lower fees. The survey, for instance, found that mandatory programs-which have lower per ton costs as a result of higher participation and higher amounts of materials collected-are cost competitive with landfill tipping fees of $15 per ton. (Average regional landfill fees range from $65 per ton in the Northeast to $16 per ton in the Rocky Mountain region.) Other studies have also concluded that recycling costs less than traditional trash collection and disposal when communities achieve high levels of recycling.10 It is true that in some communities recycling is expensive. But often that is because these communities are still recycling at very low rates and are treating recycling as an add-on to their traditional trash system rather than as a replacement for it. Communities that maximize recycling save money by redesigning their collection schedules and/or trucks.

Recycling critics erroneously assume that virtually all the costs of the solid waste system are fixed, that is, represent long-term capital investments. This assumption leads them to view recycling as an add-on cost and therefore expensive. In fact, when recycling reaches high levels and system managers view it as the way they collect wastes, then fixed costs can become variable costs. Labor can be reassigned. Twenty percent of the fleet vehicles turn over annually and can be redesigned and reduced in scale and cost. Baltimore, Maryland, for example, uses the same conventional trash trucks to collect recyclables and trash, separately and at different times. This minimized its upfront costs and allowed Baltimore to add recycling with no increase in its solid waste budget.11 Loveland, Colorado, uses the same vehicles to collect recyclables and trash, but does so simultaneously. Loveland recovers 56% of its residential waste. Cost per household did not rise when the City added recycling.12 Plano, Texas replaced one of its two trash collection days with collection of recyclables and yard waste at no additional costs.13 Takoma Park, Maryland did the same. The City avoided hiring additional employees by splitting collection crews between recycling and trash. Not only has the number of trucks remained the same, but they have not been replaced and need less maintenance as a result of decreased trash collected; half of Takoma Park’s waste is recovered.14 As communities attain ever higher recovery levels, planners and public works administrators are beginning to realize that recycling and composting can be the primary strategy for handling our solid wastes, rather than a supplement to the conventional system. The economics of materials recovery improves when, instead of adding the costs of recycling and composting onto the costs of conventional collection and disposal, the two are integrated.

MYTH #3:

Landfills and incinerators are more cost-effective and environmentally sound than recycling options.15

FACT: Recycling programs, when designed properly, are cost-competitive with landfills and incinerators, and provide net pollution prevention benefits. Recycling materials not only avoids the pollution that would be generated through landfilling and incinerating these, but also reduces the environmental burden of virgin materials extraction and manufacturing processes.

Even when landfill tipping fees are low, recycling and composting may still be preferable to disposal options. At least 22 states have less than 10 years of landfill capacity left. Southern states reportedly average five years of remaining capacity. New landfills may cost far more than existing ones. Recent U.S. EPA rules requiring municipal landfills to install liners and leachate collection systems are closing hundreds of landfills. One result is the trend toward fewer but larger and privately owned landfills. Fewer landfills will mean increased transportation costs. There may be no scarcity of land for new landfills but new landfills being built tend be quite remote from population centers. Long hauling and disposing municipal solid waste at distant landfills is already costing some cities on the West and East Coasts between $40 and $70 per ton. Privately owned landfills may increase costs. One study found that publicly owned landfills are 20% less expensive than privately owned landfills and provide greater local control over disposal activities.16 Thus, existing landfills are a precious possession. Recycling extends their lives. Projected as well as current costs and availability of landfills should be taken into account in any evaluation of the cost-effectiveness of waste reduction and recovery options. In addition, while we may have no shortage of nearby land to dump our trash, few communities want to be dumped upon. Thus, national policy should be to reduce the burden on the environment and on local communities from the transportation and dumping of trash.

Many communities have turned to incineration as an alternative to landfills. But incinerators are expensive. Tip fees at incinerators built between 1989 and 1993 average $60 per ton.17 Some more recent incinerators have had to lower tip fees in order to compete with other disposal facilities. Montgomery County, Maryland, for instance, increased taxes to property owners to cover the operating costs of its newly built incinerator after it lowered the facility’s tip fees in order to attract waste. Incinerators are always the most capital-intensive solid waste management option; materials recovery can be the least. While landfills pollute-one out of every five Superfund toxic waste sites is a former municipal solid waste landfill, and, even the best landfills will eventually leak contaminating groundwater-incinerators are potentially more polluting. Thirty percent by weight of trash entering incinerators exits as ash, a waste product that may contain high levels of toxic residues. Moreover, incinerators emit organic compounds, carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and other acid gases that landfills do not. Incineration has another drawback-it competes with recycling and composting programs for the same materials. A study evaluating Florida’s seven largest incinerators found that these facilities regularly burn significant amounts of highly recyclable materials.18 “Put-or-pay” contracts, which require local governments to deliver guaranteed tonnage of waste to incinerators, are a major disincentive to maximizing recycling or waste reduction, and thus an obstacle to low-cost materials recovery programs.

MYTH #4:

Landfills are significant job generators for rural communities.19

FACT:Recycling creates many more jobs for rural and urban communities than landfill and incineration disposal options.

Just sorting collected recyclable materials sustains, on a per-ton basis, 10 times more jobs than landfilling. However, it is making new products from the old that offers the largest economic pay-off. New recycling-based manufacturers employ even more people and at higher wages. Recycling-based paper mills and plastic product manufacturers, for instance, employ 60 times more workers than do landfills.20 Product reuse also sustains significantly more jobs than disposal options. Computer refurbishing and repair, for example, creates 68 times more jobs than landfills.21 If half the 25.5 million tons of durable goods now discarded into America’s landfills each year were reclaimed through reuse, more than 100,000 new jobs could be created in this industry alone.22

MYTH #5:

The marketplace works best in solving solid waste management problems; no public-sector intervention is needed.23

FACT:The solid waste system has always operated under public sector rules and always will. Currently these rules encourage unchecked product consumption and disposal. Public-sector intervention is needed to shape a system in which materials are produced, used, discarded, and recovered efficiently. We need to change the rules so that disposal alternatives-source reduction, reuse, recycling, and composting-operate in a level playing field. Even after we level the playing field, favoring disposal alternatives makes sense because of its many community and public sector benefits.

Our solid waste management systems do not flow naturally from a preordained plan or even from the free market. They are governed by a complex set of rules and regulations, international agreements to local ordinances and everything in-between. These rules take many forms-tax laws, virgin materials subsidies, business regulations, environmental laws, land use requirements, the commerce clause, flow control, the Public Utilities and Regulatory Act-but together they help shape what sort of waste management infrastructure thrives. Right now, these rules favor a one-way flow of materials from the producer, to the consumer, to the dump or incinerator, and a system in which trash collection and disposal is falsely viewed as cost-effective while more efficient materials use through source reduction, reuse, recycling, and composting is falsely viewed as having to pay for itself. Seventy-three percent of our municipal solid waste ends up in landfills or incinerators. We need to establish rules that will instead fashion a system in which materials are produced and utilized efficiently with minimal environmental impacts and maximum sustainable economic development benefits.

Solid waste, by definition, represents inefficiencies, and moreover, no one wants a landfill or incinerator in their backyard. Thus, favoring disposal alternatives through public-sector intervention makes sense even when a level playing field exists with disposal. Source reduction, reuse, recycling, and composting extend landfills, reduce our need to dump our trash in someone else’s backyard, reduce pollution, make us more frugal, and create jobs and new businesses. Communities should have the right to take these qualitative, quality of life elements into account when they make the rules. Many of those states with the highest recycling rates have met with success because they have begun to change the rules under which the marketplace operates by enacting bottle bills, minimum recycled-content product standards, landfill disposal bans, mandatory recycling, recycling-related business attraction incentives for the private and community sectors, and procurement programs for recycled-content products. These public-sector interventions are needed in order to transform solid waste management problems into materials conservation and recovery opportunities.

For questions or comments, contact: Brenda Platt, Director, Materials Recovery, Institute for Local Self-Reliance

End Notes 1 See J. Winston Porter, Recycling in America…..The 25% Solution, Waste Policy Center, Leesburg, Virginia, January 1996; Ken Chilton, Do We Need a Federal Garbage Man?, Policy Insight No. 137, Reason Foundation, Los Angeles, California, March 1992.

2 U.S. EPA, Characterization of Municipal Solid Waste in The United States: 1995 Update, EPA530-R-96-001, March 1996, p. 27.

3 Robert Steuteville, “The State of Garbage in America, BioCycle Nationwide Survey,” BioCycle, April 1996, p. 56.

4 Ibid., pp. 55-56.

5 Ibid., p. 56.

6 See U.S. EPA, Waste Prevention, Recycling, and Composting Options: Lessons Learned from 30 U.S. Communities, EPA530-R-92-015, February 1994.

7 See Barry Commoner, et al., Final Draft, Development and Pilot Test of an Intensive Municipal Solid Waste Recycling System for the Town of East Hampton, Center for the Biology of Natural Systems, Queens College, CUNY, Flushing, New York, 1988; Paul van der Werf, “Processing Materials from Wet/Dry Collection,” BioCycle, January 1995; “City of Guelph’s Wet/Dry Program,” Guelph, Ontario, April 1991; Thomas J. High, Superintendent, Kokoma Municipal Sanitation Utility, Kokomo’s Recycling Demonstration Program, Kokoma, Indiana, 1992; Jan Beyea et al., “Composting Plus Recycling Equals 70 Percent Diversion,” BioCycle, May 1992; Jan Beyea et al., “Wet Bag Composting Trial Yields Promising Results,” BioCycle, April 1993; Jan Beyea, et al., Wet Bag Composting Demonstration Project, Final Report, spring 1993; and Urban Ore, Inc., Reuse, Recycling, Refuse and the Local Economy, Berkeley, California, October 1993.

8 See J. Winston Porter, Recycling in America…..The 25% Solution, Waste Policy Center, Leesburg, Virginia, January 1996; Clark Wiseman, “Impediments to Economically Efficient Solid Waste Management,” Resources for the Future, no. 105, fall 1991; Clark Wiseman, “Dumping Less Wasteful than Recycling,” Wall Street Journal, 18 July 1991, A10; Marcia Berss, “No One Wants to Shoot Snow White,” Forbes, 14 October 1991, 40-42; Doug Bandow, “What a Waste: Recycling Makes No Ecological or Economic Sense,” Washington Post, 28 June 1992; J. Winston Porter, Status Report on Municipal Solid Waste Recycling, prepared for The Solid Waste Task Force, American Institute of Chemical Engineers, July 1992.

9 David Folz, “The Economics of Municipal Recycling: A Preliminary Analysis,” Department of Political Science, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Tennessee, paper presented at the Southeastern Conference on Public Administration, Montgomery, Alabama, October 7-9, 1992.

10 See Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Beyond 40 Percent: Record-Setting Recycling and Composting Programs, 1991; Institute for Local Self-Reliance, The Economic Benefits of Recycling, 1993; Barbara Stevens, Eco-Data, “Recycling Collection Costs by the Numbers: A National Survey,” Resource Recycling, September 1994.

11 Personal communication with Susan Balser, Recycling Coordinator, Baltimore, Maryland, January 1995.

12 Personal communication, Mick Mercer, Streets and Refuse Superintendent, City of Loveland, Loveland, Colorado, January 1995 and September 1996.

13 Personal communication, Melissa Owen, Operations Superintendent, Plano Solid Waste Department, Plano, Texas, January 1995, and Andrea McCullough, Environmental Awareness Administrator, Plano Solid Waste Department, Plano, Texas, September 1996.

14 Personal communication, Daryl Braithwaite, Recycling Coordinator, Takoma Park, January 1995 and September 1996.

15 See Ken Chilton, Do We Need a Federal Garbage Man?, Policy Insight No. 137, Reason Foundation, Los Angeles, California, March 1992; J. Winston Porter, Status Report on Municipal Solid Waste Recycling, prepared for The Solid Waste Task Force of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, July 1992; Lynn Scarlett, A Consumer’s Guide to Environmental Myths and Realities, Reason Foundation, Los Angeles, California, September 1991.

16 Deloitte & Touche and R.W. Beck and Associates, County of San Diego Privatization Study Final Report, October 16, 1991.

17 Institute for Local Self-Reliance, The Economic Benefits of Recycling, 1993.

18 Bill Wood, Going Up in Smoke: The Incineration of Highly Recyclable Materials in Florida, The Florida Public Interest Research Education Fund, Tallahassee, Florida, November 1992.

19 See John Tierney, “Recycling is Garbage,” New York Times Magazine, June 30, 1996.

20 See Institute for Local Self-Reliance, The Economic Benefits of Recycling, 1993; Recycling Economic Development Through Scrap-Based Manufacturing, 1994; and Recycling Means Business in Baltimore, D.C., and Richmond, 1995.

21 Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Plug into Electronics Reuse, 1996.

22 Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Creating Wealth from Everyday Items, 1996.

23 See Ken Chilton, Do We Need a Federal Garbage Man?, Policy Insight No. 137, Reason Foundation, Los Angeles, California, March 1992; Lynn Scarlett, A Consumer’s Guide to Environmental Myths and Realities, Reason Foundation, Los Angeles, California, September 1991.

About ILSR Admin

Contact ILSR   |   View all articles by ILSR Admin