Recycling still makes sense The long view: Cheap landfills a fleeting phenomenon, unlike the benefits of reusing useful products.

May 31, 1998

RECYCLING still makes sense.

No, it hasn't turned out to be the simple, wholly beneficial, life-or-death solution that advocates predicted 10 years ago, when they persuaded us to change our waste disposal habits.

It costs governments less to dump paper, plastics and glass than to recycle, thanks to the proliferation of large private landfills since deregulation of the trash industry in 1994. The market for recyclables fluctuates. Environmentally, recycling is not an energy-free, waste-free enterprise.

Still, recycling is good long-term public policy.

Recycling costs more than using landfills because landfill space is plentiful. But because landfill space is readily available today does not mean it will be tomorrow. The cost of dumping is low partly because recycling has diverted much of the waste stream, reducing demand for landfill space; tonnage rates would increase if recyclables once again were dumped.

Moreover, it makes neither financial nor environmental sense to fill landfills -- which are being constructed at great cost to contain hazardous materials -- with environmentally benign recyclables. We benefit from finding new uses for these materials rather than burying them. We save money, energy and natural resources by recycling aluminum cans instead of producing aluminum from raw bauxite and from reusing plastics instead of making them from scratch with fossil fuels.

It makes sense for local governments to re-evaluate recycling programs to see how they can work better. Perhaps curbside pickup schedules can be altered to make them more cost efficient or trash contracts rewritten so that taxpayers pay less if they produce less nonrecyclable garbage.

Experience has shown we need to refine recycling, not abandon it. That would cost us, later if not sooner, and in more ways than one.

Pub Date: 5/31/98

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