curbside recycling on the street

Restructured kerbside recycling schemes could pay for themselves

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Kerbside recycling schemes can offset the greenhouse gas emissions from rubbish destined for landfills, a US study has found.

Researchers from the University of Florida compared the economic and environmental value of community recycling efforts and compared it to the value of other climate change mitigation practices.

They found that recycling provides a return on investment similar to or better than environmentally friendly strategies like transitioning to electric vehicles or electricity from renewable energy sources.

“Eliminating recycling squanders one of the easiest opportunities for communities and citizens to help lessen the impact of climate change and reduce our demands on natural resources,” said Timothy Townsend, a professor of environmental engineering sciences at the University of Florida and one of the study’s authors. “Recycling won’t solve the problem alone, but it is part of the puzzle.”

In recent years, towns and cities across the US have cancelled or scaled back recycling programmes due to rising costs. Recent restrictions on recyclable material collected by major international markets have contributed to the cost increase, according to the study.

The researchers looked at how much more expensive recycling is compared to garbage collection only and to see if the resale value of recyclables was at any time sufficient for the programme to pay for itself. They also analysed the role residential recycling plays in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and conserving natural resources.

When recycling markets were most lucrative in 2011, US recycling costs were as little as $3 a year per household. Beginning in 2018 and through 2020, tighter restrictions went into place and the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted the markets, and the cost for recycling ranged from $34 to $42.

The study asserts that even with higher costs, the investment offsets the greenhouse gas emissions from non-recycled waste buried in landfills.

It also finds that if local governments restructure their recycling programmes to target materials with the greatest market value and the highest potential for carbon offset, recycling can pay for itself and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

They identify higher-value materials as newspaper, cardboard, aluminium and steel cans, and HDPE and PET plastic bottles.

“Recycling is a public service provided by local governments to their residents, just like providing water, sewer, roads,” Townsend added. “It is a service that does have an expense, but it always has. I would argue that it does not cost much when you compare it to other services we pay for, and when markets are good, you hardly pay anything.”

Researchers also suggest that local and state governments could implement policies to help relieve the cost burden of recycling, like establishing a minimum amount of recyclable materials that manufacturers must use in packaging or products and placing some of the responsibility for recycling costs on the manufacturers.

“If we learn collectively to recycle better, we can reduce the costs to pretty much break even,” Townsend concluded. “From an environmental perspective, that’s a good return on your investment.”

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