Recyling_Ad2.jpgIs a goal of zero waste reasonable? Or, should we recycle only if it makes economic sense, and if it does, let the market regulate it, not the government.

The problem with aiming for zero waste is that we assume almost everything has value. If you turn something into something else without using up more resources in the process, and someone wants it, then it’s valuable. Otherwise, it’s garbage. Lots of stuff is garbage.

Where I live in Marin County, California yard waste has long been recycled and makes a profit for recyclers who turn it into compost. Things don’t go so smoothly everywhere.

In Durham, North Carolina, disposal of yard waste was illegal. Residents were charged a hefty but mandatory fee to have their yard waste picked up curbside and trucked to a composting facility, where it could literally be turned for a profit. But the trucks were bringing lots of tree stumps that without the right equipment couldn’t be recycled.

Piles of yard waste naturally began to smolder. Turning hoses on the piles only made matters worse. Eventually, the decomposing matter began to smoke. Neighborhoods downwind of the facility complained about pollution. In the end, the city took all the yard waste to the landfill of a low income, predominately African-American (of course) community miles away. It cost the City of Durham a lot to do this, and when people found out they weren’t happy. They’d paid for their lawn waste to be recycled!

LandfillOkay, so recycling has problems. What about landfills? Recycling—from start to finish—almost always costs communities more than landfilling. That’s because the price of landfilling is kept artificially low. We should be charged based on the cost of the real estate and the cost of protecting the environment from the pollution landfills generate. But we’re not because of a third option: illegal dumping and burning. Free to those who do it, dumping and burning are difficult to police and cost the rest of society dearly. If we look at trash disposal in developing countries, we see dumping and burning everywhere.

This is why our municipalities routinely undercharge for landfilling. To make sense, recycling needs to cost less than the real cost of landfilling. But real costs for both are impossible to figure. It’s very difficult to estimate the cost of say, running used jars and containers through the dishwasher, which many recycling programs ask that we do.

Ironically, though rarely used, modern incinerator technology is so efficient that it produces almost no pollution, and new landfills (in the many areas where there’s enough land) could be lined so as not to leach toxins. A few landfill operations are turning methane gas into electric energy. I know—I’m going in circles.

So maybe it’s a moral issue after all. Recycling encourages people to care about the environment, and being concerned about the environment is important. It might be what matters most. Recycling, cheaper at any price!

One idea that’s floating around is to require the companies who profit from the products they package and market to pay for disposal. It might incentivize them to reconsider how they’re packaging their goods. Recently, in response to criticism about the difficulty of disassembling the iPhone, Apple unveiled Liam, a robotic system that dismantles then salvages the phone’s reusable elements, like silver and tungsten, in about six seconds. At that rate, however, Liam can only handle a few million phones a year. Apple sold 230 million phones in 2015.

Milk_Bottles1We could also purchase more food in bulk, purchasing our honey and peanut butter in stores that let us refill our washed containers. Dairies that require store customers to pay a hefty deposit fee on their milk bottles are doing more than recalling the era of the milkman. At last resort, we might all try to consume less. Hmmm.

Note: According to the EPA, the average person in the U.S. generates 4.3 pounds of waste per day—1.6 pounds more than in 1960. Where does it all go? About 55%, 220 million tons, ends up in landfills, about 35% is recycled.