Our View: The true cost of recycling | SteamboatToday.com

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Our View: The true cost of recycling

What this green-leaning ski town could use in 2014 is a doctoral candidate in environmental economics to tell us in quantifiable terms the net benefit of Steamboat Springs' passion for recycling.

We learned this week from Waste Management and Yampa Valley Recycles that our community's distance from the nearest materials recycling facility in Denver is making it more costly to recycle in Northwest Colorado. And now, we find ourselves wondering how long the well-intended practice in Steamboat can continue.

Sarah Jones, executive director of the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council, uttered the words this week: "Recycling could go away," in the context of remarks made in regards to the need to change public perception here that recycling is free.

The consternation about the future of recycling in Routt County was precipitated by a new $5 fee Waste Management is charging non-customers for the privilege of dropping off recycling at the company's yard on the west side of Steamboat. It has been free to the public for years.

The phones in the newsroom began ringing last week as dedicated recyclers, stung by the new fee, asked the newspaper to investigate. While Waste Management had displayed posters in its yard announcing the change for weeks, it could have saved some of the angst with more aggressive outreach. But the issue remains.

Waste Management's perception of recycling as a drag on its profitability is of concern to everyone who takes recycling seriously. Equally concerning is the fact that the Green Machine recycling dumpsters provided by Routt County and YVSC in the Safeway parking lot usually are overflowing by Saturday morning with another 30 hours of free recycling to go before the next pick-up.

A Denver spokeswoman for Waste Management confirmed to Steamboat Today this week her company loses money on recycling, and the extra long haul from Steamboat makes it all the more difficult to sustain.

Customers in Steamboat Springs are accustomed to seeing their bills from Waste Management increase annually, which naturally makes them wonder how unprofitable recycling could be.

So how much is Waste Management losing on recycling? Company officials sent out mixed signals in late 2013.

According to CNN Money, Waste Management made $817 million in profit in 2012 on revenues of $13.6 billion for a modest net profit of 6 percent.

A November 2013 article in "Resource Recycling" reported that despite public comments by WM CEO David Steiner saying his company was set to lose at least $100 million on its recycling operations for the year, the company's chief of recycling, Bill Caesar, said something different. Caesar said the company's recycling business was profitable in 2012 and was close to breaking even in 2013.

Steiner's remarks later were explained as referring to a $100 million decline in recycling revenues from 2012 to 2013.

We think the issue of greater concern for Routt County residents is the environmental cost of recycling and whether the local effort truly provides a benefit, given its carbon footprint.

In some locations around the country recycling is undertaken to keep reusable resources out of landfills that are perilously close to being full. But in Routt County, we learned at the YVR meeting that we have 100 years of readily developable landfill capacity. So, the motivation for recycling here is to support the environment by reusing valuable natural resources.

An important question is: "To what extent are the benefits of recycling efforts in Routt County offset by the carbon-based fuels expended to get the recyclables to market?"

We suspect there's no simple mathematical answer to that question; the fluctuating prices of resources such as cardboards and aluminum must be taken into account. And comparing our recycling carbon footprint to the value of materials recycled is also a difficult calculus.

But if recycling here really is in jeopardy, it's a question for which we should seek an answer. Even if it takes an environmental economist and a cost benefit analysis to provide it.

We also think Waste Management's decision to charge non-customers $5 to drop off items at its yard is a small price to pay for the service. Recycling is not free, and the new fee is reasonable and helps offset some of the company's cost to recycle the materials.