Monday, June 23, 2008

Should American Fork Recycle?

I recycle. I started recycling 15 years ago in upstate New York. I recycle now, even though American Fork charges me $4.50 per month for the privilege.

I do more than recycle—I also reduce and re-use. (Reduce, re-use, and recycle, as any good environmentalist knows, are the three Rs of recycling.) For example, I never buy plastic bags. These just end up in the garbage. It makes more environmental sense to re-use grocery bags and bread bags.

I recycle in part because I am descended from practical Mormon pioneers whose legacy restrains me from throwing out any useful item. But I also recycle because I feel a growing concern for the toll that landfills and incinerators take on our communities. Here in the Intermountain West, it's easy to place a landfill out of sight and out of mind. But on the crowded coasts, where cities are built one on top of another, communities are hard-pressed to find places for waste disposal. Many ship their garbage to states like ours.

It's only a matter of time before the population grows to similar proportions in Utah. Forward-thinking community planning, therefore, must include methods of reducing waste.

Why then, did I vote against a plan for universal recycling in American Fork? My reasons were not moral, but procedural. Consider the following:

  • Recycling markets in the west are few and far between, and Utah often ships its recyclables to markets as distant as California. This not only boosts costs, but burns extra fossil fuels and discharges pollutants into the air. This may not seem like such a problem on a sunny June day, but it gave me pause last winter. Which is the lesser evil—landfilling or trucking?
  • Equally concerning to me was the fact that nobody making the proposal was prepared to answer this question. I asked twice at different work sessions and once at the Council meeting when the vote was scheduled, and nobody could produce figures showing that recycling conserves resources in Utah.
  • This led me to ask why, if not because of a studied concern for the environment, the City's service provider proposed the program? Was it in order to provide better for business? Should that be a concern of the City Council? I would have been much more receptive to the program if it had had its origins in the requests of our residents—but it did not.

It's one thing for me to spend $4.50 of my own money to fund something I value. It's quite a different thing for me to compel American Fork's 7,000 residences to make the same choice. Without figures to justify the case for the public good, I couldn't justify the vote.

This, in fact, is why the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) advises communities to consider the decision carefully:

Recycling is a local issue—the success and viability of recycling depends on a community's resources and structure. A community must consider the costs of a recycling program, as well as the availability of markets for its recovered materials. In some areas, not enough resources exist to make recycling an economically feasible option. . . .

Recycling does cost money, but so does waste disposal. Communities must pay to collect trash and manage a landfill or incinerator and so also should expect to pay for recycling. Assessing how recycling will impact your community requires a full appraisal of the environmental and economic benefits and costs of recycling, as compared to the one-way consumption of resources from disposing of used products and packaging in landfills and incinerators. Analyzing all of these factors together will help you determine if recycling is more cost effective in your community.

Absent such an analysis, I could not justify spending your money.

I also feel there are better ways to encourage waste reduction. I could have whole-heartedly endorsed a pay-as-you-throw program, for example. In Ithaca, New York, where I first began recycling, the system was based on trash tags. These tags were sold at grocery stores like postage stamps, and were coded according to the volume of the bag. Residents tagged their garbage bags, left them on the curb, and the City hauled them away. Untagged bags were left behind. For recyclables, however, residents were given a convenient container—I kept mine under my kitchen sink—and the City emptied these at no charge to the residents. This created a clear incentive to recycle—and to compost.

Combined with an aggressive public education campaign—a campaign which included partnerships with the County Extension, the EPA, and others, and which featured radio ads, literature, and demonstrations at every community gathering—this program led to significant reduction in landfill waste. Residents who recycle and compost can easily reduce their garbage output by half to three-quarters.

But the real beauty of this program is that it allows the elderly, pensioned widow to pay only for the trash she generates. Under American Fork's system, the lonely pensioner has to pay the same amount for her modest garbage output as does my family of six—and now she will have to pay additional for her recycling container.

I did a poor job of selling the rest of the Council on my views, however, and the outcome of the June 10 vote is that residents who do not opt out of the program by August 31 will receive a large blue container and will start paying $4.50 each month to recycle. Families who are now paying $6.25 extra for a second trash container are well advised to return the second container and save money by utilizing the recycling bins.

Watch the water bills for further information.

P.S. There was also some debate about using savings generated by recycling to fund other City programs. This will not happen, inasmuch as water, sewer and garbage fees are fees for service (enterprise funds) and appropriations of these monies for purposes other than supplying the service are illegal.


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