Garbage In, Garbage Out

Why Dallas' recycling program is a $17 million joke

Even without definite figures from Community Waste Disposal, studies of government-run programs show that typically upward of 40 percent of what a recycler picks up at the curb ends up in the garbage dump. Paper gets wet, recyclers get confused about what is acceptable, and glass gets broken. It's just human nature that everything isn't going to be clean and fit for recycling, Logomasini says.

"They say 40 percent that goes into the recycling center [gets trashed]; my guess is that it could be higher than that. From the research I've done, I've found that in a lot of cases, they just don't have markets," Logomasini says. "There may be periods of time where the market is really good for recyclables and then the market changes. You know, markets vary over time and then more goes into the landfill."

Logomasini, who has studied issues surrounding government-mandated recycling since 1991, says it is more realistic to figure that about 60 percent of the material retrieved at the curb on recycling day goes to the dump.

Joanne Hill stands at the Dry Gulch Recycling Center, where she has spent 15 years offering voluntary recycling services without spending taxpayer money.
Mark Graham
Joanne Hill stands at the Dry Gulch Recycling Center, where she has spent 15 years offering voluntary recycling services without spending taxpayer money.
Unlike most other materials picked up at the curb, aluminum is one of the commodities that actually has a consistently strong market, recycling experts say.
Mark Graham
Unlike most other materials picked up at the curb, aluminum is one of the commodities that actually has a consistently strong market, recycling experts say.

"I think the most exasperating part is that they take your garbage, they force you to sort and clean it, and then they take it to a landfill," she says.

It's now accepted that there's plenty of space at the nation's landfills.

"We do not have a shortage in most cases of landfill space," says Thea McManus, acting division director for the Municipal and Industrial Waste Division of the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C. "We thought we were years ago because we did this capacity report, and the trend just did not continue."

Sarah Voss, director of corporate communications for Waste Management Inc., the largest recycler in the United States, says she agrees with the argument that landfill space isn't what motivates recycling today.

"It's more because it's the right thing to do; people want to do it; that's probably more the argument," she says. "Basically what we tell people is it's something that our customers want. They want to recycle. They want to do that; they want to feel like they are giving back, so it's a service we provide to our customers."

In Dallas, the city's 2,000-acre McCommas Bluff Landfill site is designed to last about 40 more years, with or without recycling. The city is considering a $46 million bond package that, if approved, would build a levee to increase the site's useful size.

The idea that municipal landfills are dangerous is another myth, both McManus and Logomasini say. Most material deposited into a municipal landfill is not hazardous. Landfills are not only strictly regulated and monitored, they end up being so dry that the material is practically "mummified," Logomasini says.

Without the landfill-saving argument, what then is the justification for paying companies such as Community Waste Disposal millions to recycle? For one thing, it keeps the companies in business, government officials say. Puckett and McManus say there is value in jobs created and energy saved, an argument reiterated by environmental groups that favor recycling.

"There's all these other reasons that we absolutely promote recycling...We want you to think about recycling and source reduction before you generate the garbage and put it in the landfill," McManus says. "They have to do with economics, job creation, future generation. I mean, there's a whole bunch of other upstream benefits."

Logomasini strongly disagrees that government programs add jobs that wouldn't crop up through free market forces anyway. Private programs that aren't charged to the public do a better job of economically extracting useful resources from the waste stream, while government-mandated programs such as the one in Dallas do little more than make the well-educated and affluent feel as though they've done something for the environment at a typically high cost, she says.

"It comes down to the fact that people feel good about basically bonding with their trash. It's nice that people want to do something good for the environment. Unfortunately, the sentiment is being directed in the wrong place," she says.


Dallas resident Joanne Hill, an avid recycler and city government watchdog, is not impressed with the city's recycling effort either and takes issue with the city's expensive recycling failures.

One of those failed efforts is at McCommas Bluff, where garbage trucks one after another climb a mountain built on waste and disappear into dusty clouds. Hill stands inside an open-air building that cost the city about $250,000 in grant money to erect a few years ago. It was supposed to be used to sort out usable materials that might otherwise have been sent to the landfill. But it wasn't designed properly, and so it was never used. The city has told Hill that the building will be used eventually, perhaps when the market for recyclable materials goes up.

The same thing happened in North Dallas across the street from Bachman Transfer Station where the city put up an outdoor loading dock for recycling. Fifteen years ago, when it became apparent that the city wasn't going to use the loading dock for recycling after all, Hill initiated her own effort at the dock, called Dry Gulch.

"People drop off mattresses and furniture and all kinds of things, and anything that can be reused, people are free to pick it up here," she says.

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