The Council on Plastics and Packaging in the Environment contends that "Of all the disposal methods available today, solid waste managers recognize that recycling and waste-to-energy incineration are better long-run solutions to the solid waste problem than landfilling, in many parts of the country." [120]

If that is, in fact, true for some (many?) parts of the country, does that mean that it is also true for all parts of the country? Given present, and expected future circumstances, is it especially true in Michigan?

The argument in favor of recycling over landfilling is that recycling yields "cost avoidance." Even if markets fail to cover the cost of source separation, collection, processing, and shipping of distinct materials into their individual secondary materials markets, recycling will divert a portion of MSW from landfills and, thereby, save what would have otherwise been spent on tipping fees. In that context, Caroline Price, writing in the February, 1990 issue of Michigan Business, argues that as landfill tipping fees rise, recycling can make sense on strictly economic terms – becoming less expensive than traditional waste removal systems. [121] Some waste professionals discuss the value of "avoided" landfill costs achieved through recycling programs in terms of the average cost of the next generation landfill or some weighted average of current and expected future landfill costs. This approach oversimplifies the issue. For one thing, not only are recycling costs different across regions of a state – given population densities and location relative to secondary material markets – landfill costs are not the same in all regions of a state or, certainly, in all parts of the country. In addition, once cost comparisons are to be made across time, (i.e., "current" versus "expected future") expected future costs and benefits should be reduced to "present values."

How much "cost avoidance" really occurs depends on what it actually costs to develop a system for collecting and processing municipal waste so that it can be presented for sale in secondary materials markets, compared to what it costs to landfill wastes both now and in the future. Therefore, no matter how much initial public enthusiasm may exist for a community-wide curbside "recycling" program, those responsible for instituting the program should take account of the following:

  1. Curbside collection involves major capital expenditures for specialized collection vehicles.

  2. Labor, maintenance, administration, and transportation costs must be incurred. If a community hires a private firm, that firm will certainly factor these costs into its bid.

  3. Finally, when "cost-avoidance" savings are expected to materialize only over several years, decision makers should discount expected future costs and benefits to the present to generate the date required for valid cost comparisons.

The cost of landfilling in Michigan now ranges from a low of $9.75 per ton in Montmorency County to a high of $37 per ton in some Detroit-area communities. The current average state-wide tipping fee is well below $25 per-ton. (In June, 1990, Saginaw officials were complaining about the fact that their landfill tipping charges had increased to $21.75 a ton. [122]) Some studies suggest that the range is between $22-$33 per-ton with the average near $21 per-ton. [123]

However, sound environmental management demands that old landfills be closed and new landfills meet tough environmental standards. Even though the SCS study noted above, along with the Marquette County experience, strongly suggests that tipping fees in new, environmentally sound, landfills need not rise to the levels which characterize some other states, assume that with the closing of old landfills and the development of new landfills, tipping fees rise to, say, $40 per ton.

At tipping fees of $40 per ton, can careful and fully implemented recycling programs be as cost effective as landfilling – even when landfills are designed to provide complete environmental protection?

Ann Arbor, Michigan has one of the oldest recycling programs in the state. The city also pays Browning-Ferris Industries a $30 per-ton tipping fee to accept its non-recycled waste. According to Mr. Bob Line of BFI, that cost may soon rise to $33 per-ton. Yet, according to Brian Weinert, Ann Arbor resources recovery manager, the city pays the non-profit "Recycle Ann Arbor" program $85 a ton to take away about 4,500 tons of paper, glass, metal and other recyclable materials. [124]

Dearborn, Michigan, households are now paying an extra $22 per-family, per year – about 30% more than previously – to fund the city's curbside recycling program. That comes to over $700,000 per year. The city hopes to get back about 10% of that each year through the sale of recyclables, but acknowledges that it all depends on what happens in the market for recyclables. [125]

Mr. Tom Tryce, public works superintendent for Royal Oak, Michigan, told the Detroit News that "Recycling is a very, very expensive business. It's not a cost-saving measure." Royal Oak citizens will be paying $5 million more over the next three years to expand its recycling program, which previously provided curbside pick-up for newspapers only. [126]

Madison Heights, Michigan, has spent $250,000 to launch its recycling program, largely for three new trucks and drivers. Pete Connors, assistant city manager of Madison Heights, hopes that through savings on landfill tipping fees the city will break even. However, Connors told the Detroit News, "I think it's unlikely residents will ever get anything back from the sale of recyclables. I think that the best we can hope for will be no increase in landfill tipping fees." [127]

The Southeastern Oakland County Resource Recovery Authority (SOCRRA), handles the plastics which local governments in that county require households to place in special containers for recycling. Michael Czuprenski, operations manager for the Authority, claims that the cost of transporting these materials is double what it would cost to landfill them. In addition, he admitted that while one recycling firm has approached the Authority about buying the materials, the Authority has rejected the offer because the cost of processing the material to meet the requirements specified by the firm was too high relative to the price offered. (Some plastics recycling firms in Michigan are prepared to offer between $80 and $160 a ton for baled and processed plastic containers. [128])

But despite these experiences, all these communities believe that recycling is cost-effective because it reduces the quantity of wastes being sent to landfills and, thereby, saves landfill tipping fees.