October 22, 2015: Belmont’s Recycling Program Merits Keeping

Belmont Citizen-Herald: October 22, 2015

A recent Op Ed piece in the New York Times suggests that while people who recycle “probably assume that recycling is helping your community and protecting the environment,” it is “in fact wasting your time.”  NYT columnist John Tierney unabashedly asserts that “recycling has been relentlessly promoted as. . .an unalloyed public good and private virtue” but “otherwise well-informed and educated people have no idea of the relative costs and benefits.”

Belmont, a community with a robust recycling program, should reject Tierney’s conclusions both on an individual level and as a matter of public policy.

Belmont significantly expanded its curbside recycling program in 2008.  Officials noted at that time that “because the town must pay $70/ton of refuse shipped for incineration, boosting recycling has the potential to save the town tens of thousands of dollars…”  Using those cost savings, in 2012, the town hired a Recycling Coordinator to focus on increasing residential and municipal recycling.  During Calendar Year 2014, the town recycled 5,886 tons, 44% of its total residential solid waste stream; Belmont’s 2013 recycling rate was 37%.

There are certain unassailable “truths” about the need for, and impact of, recycling today.  For example, in 2010, Americans used 426 billion plastic water bottles.  Recycling all of those would have offset the greenhouse gases for 1.065 million round-trip airline flights between New York and London.  Since the actual recycling rate for such bottles is only about 30%, the GHG offset was in reality only 340,000 roundtrips. Americans, however, use (and recycle) a plethora of other plastic bottles (such as both dish and laundry detergents).  However calculated, the total GHG emissions offset is substantial.

We need, however, to acknowledge recycling’s limitations.  Just as the price of oil, the price of housing, and the price of all other goods and services varies over time, so, too, does the price of recycled materials.  Sometimes curbside recycling is economical when compared to garbage collection (and landfill disposal or incineration) and sometimes it is not.  Short-term price fluctuations, however, should not affect Belmont’s community recycling policies. In the long-term, the only reason that landfill disposal / incineration might be financially competitive with recycling, at all, is because its price places no value on the environmental degradation resulting from disposal and incineration, or on the health consequences arising from that despoliation.

Nonetheless, as one national environmental advocate observes, a danger arises when “avid recyclers…feel more self-righteously virtuous than the benefits of recycling warrant.”  I happen to agree with the Environmental Defense Fund (concededly, an organization I have worked with some over the years) that “recycling is not a panacea for our environmental problems to be pursued at any cost…”

However, we should always bear in mind the bigger picture.  Called “materials management,” this big picture urges people to Reduce usage where possible, Reuse when appropriate, and Recycle when discarding.  It is through this growing Reduce/Re-use/Recycle mindset that Americans have reduced their per-person waste generation by eight percent since 2000.

In addition, there can be no question but that recycling has become an important part of our national economy.  Supporting more than 470,000 jobs, and producing $11.2 billion in tax revenues, the recycling industry generates $105.8 billion in annual economic activity.  According to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, that places recycling on par with the data processing and hosting industry, the dental industry, and the automotive repair industry.

Belmont’s Vision Statement, adopted by Town Meeting in 2001, proclaims that Belmont aspires to “be an environmentally responsible community.”  An aggressive and comprehensive town-supported recycling program is one critical aspect of pursuing that aspiration.

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