Michigan legislators are once again trying to jump-start recycling in the state with proposals that ignore market realities. Two bills that have recently passed the state Senate will, if implemented, prove no more successful than past efforts to mandate recycling. The state House should let them die.
Senate Bill 790 sets up a “state recycling advisory council.” The council would have numerous charges, including calculating the amount of public and private money needed to improve recycling in urban and rural areas; identifying "all known sources of potential funding for recycling"; and devising a method for distributing these monies to local recycling programs. Senate Bill 854, in turn, would establish a new post of “statewide recycling coordinator” within the Department of Environmental Quality. The coordinator’s office would be charged with creating a "regular review of local recycling programs" and gathering information about "recycling processes, markets and rates."
These bills come on the heels of several new state laws limiting the types of items that can be lawfully placed in landfills. These limits operate on the false premise that landfill bans and recycling subsidies will create sustainable markets for recycled materials.
Experience with this approach shows that it does not work. In 1991, only 15 percent of the U.S. population had access to curbside recycling, according to the nonprofit Container Recycling Institute. By 1999, this figure had grown to 61 percent. Despite the increased access to curbside recycling, the percentage of recycled material was actually declining in two key categories. The recycling rate for aluminum cans fell from 64 percent in 1990 to 55 percent in 1999. Plastic bottle recycling rates peaked in the mid-1990s and decreased each year through the remainder of the decade. (Paper recycling rates — the third key category — are less relevant in this case, since a significant amount of paper recycling is not done at the curbside.)
Recent expenditures of Michigan taxpayers’ money have done little to stimulate recycling in the state. Between 1988 and 1997, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources awarded $150 million from the Solid Waste Alternatives Program in order to develop markets for recycled products and encourage resource-recovery projects. But SWAP, like most government attempts to manipulate markets, has been a dismal failure. The Michigan recycling rate of 20 percent at the end of 2000 is well below the average rate of 26 percent for Great Lakes states, even though other states in the region did not institute large spending programs like SWAP.
Similarly, no number of government mandates will create recycling markets. While it is true that government can ban items, such as used computers, from landfills, these computers will be stockpiled somewhere until there is a market for them. Simply banning an item from a landfill does not magically create a market for it.
In fact, government mandates usually work against establishing viable markets for recyclables. Consider the Michigan Bottle Law. While requiring a 10-cent deposit for soft drink and beer containers has helped prevent litter, it has also helped prevent curbside recycling. Aluminum cans are generally the most valuable recycling material picked up at the curb, but the bottle law’s economic incentive to return them to stores has prevented households from tossing them in the trash. Most curbside recycling programs in Michigan communities would be discontinued without taxpayer subsidies.
This dependence on subsidies is a common problem. Markets that need a government subsidy to get started usually collapse once it is gone. New government programs to "improve" subsidies tend to be counterproductive, too. The proposed state recycling advisory council’s mission to identify sources of potential funding for recycling will likely produce calls for new taxes masquerading as “fees,” further retarding the economic growth that produces technology that is friendlier to the environment. And a new office of state recycling coordinator will simply create additional bureaucracy within an agency that already claims it does not have the necessary resources to perform its basic function of environmental protection.
Undoubtedly, new markets for the use of recycled materials will emerge. These markets, however, will be created by economic opportunities for Michigan manufacturers competing in the marketplace, not by government mandates.
Lawmakers should set aside the impulse to mandate change and focus instead on removing obstacles to the uses of recycled materials by Michigan firms. Requiring the DEQ to streamline the environmental permitting process that companies must follow before they can utilize recycled materials in their manufacturing processes would be a good place to start. This would do more to create a market for recycling than new “councils” and “coordinators,” who are far more likely to produce paper for recycling bins than to actually create a recycling market.
Russ Harding is senior environmental policy analyst at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. He is also former director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.