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Recycling is free and life is great … right?

Free recycling. What a wonderful concept! Isn’t it great to know that the trucks and the crews that come by your house and collect your recyclables and the workers and equipment that process them are doing all of this for free? Altruism is alive and well in America.

But wait a minute. Those workers expect to be paid; so do the truck and equipment companies and fuel providers. What a heartless bunch of people they are, puncturing the balloon of free recycling!

Wait another minute, maybe recycling really is free — it’s just that someone else is paying for it, not you or me. Isn’t that nice of them?

Once again the illusion of free recycling is upon us. When recycling programs became popular two decades ago, many politicians argued that recycling would be free. Most of them knew better, but they like to be reelected. They knew that admitting they have raised costs for voters is not a guaranteed reelection path.

Even though those politicians said recycling is free, haulers – and their municipal equivalents in city and county solid waste offices – knew better. When they started a curbside recycling program, most haulers increased the monthly household charge for garbage and recycling collection by a couple of dollars. Sure they might have gotten a complaint or two after their customers got the first bill, but those complaints quickly dried up because most people wanted to recycle and understood it wasn’t free.

I am still surprised when politicians or other recycling advocates continue to claim “recycling is free.” Nothing has changed in the last two decades. Recycling still isn’t free. So why are some people still so insistent that it should be?

Maybe the problem is that we all like “freebies.” We love a “free” breakfast at a hotel, free swag at conferences such as WasteExpo and those offers of “free” stuff we get in the mail. We know — well, most of us know — that the cost of breakfast is hidden in our hotel bill, that our exhibit fees or the exhibitors pay for the freebies, and that we have to make a mandatory contribution to get the “free” stuff. But we enjoy the illusion.

The myth of free recycling is now manifesting itself in towns with pay-as-you-throw programs. These user-pay systems charge for waste services based on the amount of trash customers produce. User fees are often based on the size of the garbage can, with customers paying more for larger cans. Pay-as-you-throw is a good way to pay for waste services because it is based on usage. Unfortunately, when many of these programs were launched, people were told they were paying for garbage and that recycling was free. As these programs grew, they have inevitably resulted in less garbage and more recyclables. Communities who only charge for garbage are starting to find themselves short of cash to pay for both recycling and garbage. Worse yet, their residents, told that recycling is free, are not happy when faced with reality.

These cities will fix this problem when they finally concede that recycling is not free. Honesty, after all, should have been the best policy from the start. The best things in life may be free, but alas, recycling is not.

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What's Circular File?

Waste and recycling insights from Chaz Miller, state programs director for the National Waste & Recycling Association

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Chaz Miller

Chaz Miller is state programs director for the National Waste & Recycling Association, Washington, D.C.
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