Thursday, 16 December 2010

Recycling nudges and shoves

Christchurch City Council nudges us to recycle. And we comply. How do they do it? We get three bins for collection. A large yellow bin into which we can deposit recyclable materials, a smaller red bin for general rubbish, and a smaller green bin for compostable materials. Because we generally have zero excess capacity in the red bin (one in diapers, one hopefully out of them in a month or so), we shunt lots of stuff to the other bins. If the capacity constraint were too binding, we'd contract for alternative service: private contractors also provide bins that, for a fee, are collected regularly for disposal. Under the prior regime, we also had a mild nudge: Council fully subsidized the collection of recyclable rubbish but charged $1 per bag for collection of waste destined for landfill. The net per tonne cost to council of disposing of recyclable waste was roughly twice as much as the net cost of landfill disposal: I'd reckoned it around $40 per tonne net for landfill and about $80 net for recyclables.

Under the new system, none of the disposal methods incur any marginal charge for households and the per tonne costs of all three forms of disposal roughly match at around $300 per tonne. The cost of landfill disposal has increased with the loss of offsetting revenue; the cost of disposing of recyclables has increased presumably with collapses in the value of recyclable materials and increased use of the big yellow bins. And total costs have to go up when running two trucks past each residence every week rather than just one.

Under the old system, I recycled because refraining from recycling was a public good: I would reduce costs to the council but increase costs to me by not using the small old recycling bins. Now, Council should be roughly indifferent which bin I use because their costs don't vary hugely across the three disposal methods. They get angry if you put rubbish in the compost or recyclable bins, but nobody worries much about having inspectors check that you're not sneaking tin cans into your landfill waste bin.

Not so in Cleveland. Says Wendy McElroy:
Citing the British model, Cleveland, Ohio, is taking a giant step toward a similar scheme of compulsory recycling. In 2011 some 25,000 households will be required to use recycling bins fitted with radio-frequency identification tags (RFIDs)—tiny computer chips that can remotely provide information such as the weight of the bin’s contents and that allow passing garbage trucks to verify their presence. If a household does not put its recycle bin out on the curb, an inspector could check its garbage for improperly discarded recyclables and fine the scofflaws $100. Moreover, if a bin is put out in a tardy manner or left out too long, the household could be fined. Cleveland plans to implement the system citywide within six years.

Extreme recycling programs are nothing new, even in American cities. In San Francisco recycling and composting are mandatory; trash is sorted into three different bins with compliance enforced through fines. New York City has a similar program.
And there's the shove.
Cleveland is particularly important, however, because of its size. Cash-starved local governments will be watching to see if an American city as big as Cleveland can use RFID bins to increase revenues. The revenues would flow from three basic sources: a trash-collection fee that could be increased, as in Alexandria; the imposition of fines; and the profit, if any, from selling recyclables. The last source should not be dismissed. Recycling programs are not generally cost-efficient, but much of the reason is that collections need to be cleaned and re-sorted at their destination.

If households can be forced to assume these labor-intensive tasks, then selling recyclables—especially such goods as aluminum cans—is more likely to be profitable. (Perversely, the demand for volume recycling may hit the poor the hardest; in the wake of recession, it is becoming increasingly common for people to hoard their aluminum cans in order to turn them in for cash.)
I tend to think subsidized recycling programmes are mostly nonsense: instead, charge households the cost of disposing of their waste with some small free allotment to discourage poor folks from using the nearest ditch as alternative. If it's profitable that any of the trash be collected for recycling, it'll get done by the private sector. Any recycling that's then done efficiently accounts for all of the costs of recycling, including the private costs of sorting and cleaning waste to make it suitable for recycling. But checking folks' landfill-destined waste for recyclables, fining them if they don't use their recycling bins, and mandating that they scrub out old cans before putting them in the recycle bins seems a form of forced labour.

I hope they at least allow folks to hire private contractors to take bins of unsorted waste for disposal.


  1. Under the old system I used Bokashi and a worm farm to process a big part of our green waste. Now I through most of it to the green bin, because I have to pay for it anyway. The magic of incentives.

  2. We had a composter. But the only logical place to put it made a walk by the pool a thoroughfare to something non-pool related, incurring the wrath of the council pool inspector. So we gave the composter to the neighbor. Will post one of these days on the insanity of the pool inspections in CHC...

  3. Eric, I would really like to see your take on pool inspections and the by-laws around this. I have heard some real weird stories about pool inspections and the demands inspectors have made...

    On recycling, here in Auckland we have two bins - 120l for general waste (red lid) and a 240l bin for recycling (blue bin). The blue bins are not for green waste; there is no collection for that. The blue bin is collected fortnightly and all cans, paper, plastic etc goes in there.

    A lot of people in my area seem to use commercial firms to collect green waste, so there is a business model there. I don't know whether there is any checking on what goes into the red bins, but I assume there is none - the trucks doing the collections move pretty fast.

  4. I need to take some pictures before posting on the pool stuff...stay tuned...