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.And there's the shove.
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.
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.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.
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 hope they at least allow folks to hire private contractors to take bins of unsorted waste for disposal.