Commentary: Why bother recycling when landfills are cheaper?

E. Thomas McClanahan is a columnist for the Kansas City Star.
E. Thomas McClanahan is a columnist for the Kansas City Star. MCT

Commercial and industrial recycling can be very profitable, but the curbside variety is almost always a loser.

Kansas City, for example, spends about $4 million a year to pick up widely dispersed piles of garbage deemed “recyclable.” How much would it cost to simply dump this stuff in a landfill?

In round numbers, not $4 million but about $550,000: 23,000 tons of recyclables, times the $24-a-ton landfill tipping fee.

So why not just dump it? That brings up the issue of landfill space. Many people believe it’s in short supply — which isn’t true — or may be in short supply at some point in the future.

Because of the mythic landfill space problem, we’re told, we have to reduce our waste stream by some arbitrarily contrived proportion, which in Kansas City’s case is 80 percent. Public Works Spokesman Dennis Gagnon says that if the waste stream isn’t reduced, we could end up trucking trash to landfills in Topeka or Warrensburg.

To forestall this scenario, City Hall proposes to build a large materials recovery facility, or MRF (pronounced “murf’). It would be part of a complex that would also provide offices for the city’s Solid Waste Division, as well as parking for a truck fleet and employee vehicles.

The city hopes that by using the MRF to process recyclables and then selling them, it can reduce the waste stream and the net cost of trash pickup. If this sounds familiar, it is. Fifteen years ago, a similar plan was proposed and abandoned.

The problem: Recyclables are commodities and commodity prices fluctuate wildly. Gagnon acknowledged that if revenue from the sale of recyclables doesn’t cover the MRF’s costs, then taxpayers would be on the hook. The city, in effect, proposes to involve taxpayers in a commodity speculation.

A number of area waste collectors and recyclers are up in arms about this plan. Some fear that the recyclables collected in other communities will some day be diverted to Kansas City’s MRF, or “eco-center” as the city calls it. They’re afraid the investment they’ve made in their own MRFs will be degraded.

The area already has enough MRF capacity to handle the city’s waste stream, they say. To them, the plan looks like a government takeover of their industry.

Their fears partly stem from the KC plan’s sheer magnitude. One early cost projection put the project at around $46 million, although Gagnon says the final number could well be different.

The whole exercise seems like a needless contortion to justify the enormous cost of curbside recycling. City officials ask: Why not make recycling pay by having the city more directly control the processing and selling of recyclables?

Yet this makes little sense, given that the presumed landfill scaracity doesn’t exist. The state recently “extended” the Sugar Creek landfill the city now uses, boosting its useful life by several decades.

Landfill space is like other resources, including oil. How much is “recoverable” fluctuates dramatically. Based on predictions past, we should have run out of oil several times already. The predictions never pan out.

Clemson economist Daniel K. Benjamin writes that even though Americans produce more garbage than ever before, we have far more landfill space than in the 1980s, when the Environmental Protection Agency put out a flawed study underestimating what was available.

Benjamin, in a monograph entitled “Recycling Myths Revisted,” writes that “by the mid-1990s, nationwide landfill capacity stood at about 14 years; by 2001 capacity had risen to more than 18 years; and it is now up to 20 years.”

Gagnon says the details of the eco-center proposal are still being worked out. They’ll be presented to the City Council next month. We should wait to see the specifics before coming to conclusions, he says.

I think we’re entitled to be concerned. The council should focus on the risk to taxpayers, who will pick up the tab when — not if — commodity prices do one of their familiar swan dives. But if the council wants to get serious about saving the most important resource — money — it should get rid of curbside recycling.

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