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Recycling cost overstated

By Stephen Leahy

Study: Recycling Cost Overstated
Stephen Leahy  09.13.04 | 2:00 AM

Over the past nine years, Nova Scotia has emerged as a world leader in recycling, sending only about half its garbage to landfills or incinerators.

While recycling programs cost more than dumping trash into a big hole, a new study finds that the sparsely populated Canadian province is actually saving money by reducing its waste. When all the costs and benefits of those programs are measured, and depending on what factors are taken into account, the report (.pdf) says that Nova Scotia saves anywhere from $25 million to $125 million every year.

The report is by GPI Atlantic (the "GPI" stands for Genuine Progress Index), a research group that has spent a decade developing tools for quantifying hard-to-measure realities such as the value of volunteerism, household work or air quality.

"If there's no number associated with something, it's assumed to be zero," said Sally Walker, a senior researcher at GPI Atlantic and co-author of the report.

Simply adding up the costs of recycling and the revenue generated from sales of recycled materials would show that the program cost the province $18 million a year more than just throwing trash into landfills, Walker said.

To get an accurate picture of the real value of Nova Scotia's recycling and composting program, the report considered a number of factors, including how much energy was saved by using recycled materials instead of those extracted from virgin resources. It also determined the direct and indirect value generated from new employment in the recycling sector and from nearly doubling the lifespan of the remaining landfills.

"It takes three to four or even more times as much energy to make something from raw materials than from recycled," Walker said.

The report also included the real but uncounted cost of existing landfills, which leak, gave off noxious gases and are home to large numbers of rats and seagulls -- all of which affect the quality of life and property values of nearby residents.

Ugly, not-in-my-backyard fights over new landfill sites in the largely rural province of less than a million people sparked the move to recycling in the first place during the mid-1990s, said Barry Friesen, solid-waste resource manager at the Nova Scotia Department of Environment.

In 1995, the province set up programs to reduce the amount of trash going to landfills by 50 percent. By 1998 all organic and other types of waste -- like beverage containers, newsprint, used tires and waste paint -- were banned from landfills and had to be recycled.

The program has enjoyed wide public support, mainly due to extensive public consultation at the outset, as well as the new jobs it provided in a region with high unemployment due to the decline of industries such as fishing, coal and lumber, said Friesen.

It took just five years -- until 2000 -- for Nova Scotia to reduce its wastes by 50 percent through a wide range of programs, including a deposit/refund system for all beverage containers, curbside organic collection for nearly all homes and businesses, and recycling of all paint, tires and other similar materials.

However, Nova Scotia's recycling numbers slipped to 46 percent of all trash in 2003. Friesen attributes this mainly to the increase in difficult-to-recycle plastic products and the fact that people buy more goods in general, putting more pressure on the system. But Nova Scotia continues to push forward and will begin recycling all electronic waste next year.

"The GPI Atlantic report is a vindication of the investment we've made in this," he said.
The concept behind GPI originates with an Oakland, California, economic research organization called Redefining Progress. With a mandate to shift the U.S. economy and public policy toward sustainability, it issues annual GPI reports on the nation's economy.

In the most recent report, it found that the gross domestic product, the traditional economic measure, had overestimated the health of the U.S. economy by $7 trillion in 2002. The key factors contributing to this over-counting were the expenditures and losses resulting from the accounting scandals at Enron, WorldCom, Arthur Andersen and others, the report said.

The gross domestic product only measures economic activity and is not a barometer of how well the nation is doing, said Jason Venetoulis, a senior research associate at Redefining Progress.

GPI considers the value of unpaid housework, caring for children and the elderly, volunteerism and the hours spent on free time or family and community activities, factors not included in the dollar-based GDP. It subtracts time wasted on commuting, a decline in resources, personal and institutional debt, and other negatives.

It also considers both the quality and distribution of economic growth. By contrast, when the homes destroyed by hurricanes in Florida are rebuilt, the costs will boost GDP even though neither residents nor the country are truly better off as a result.

Since traditional economic measures don't capture the full costs of using raw resources or benefits, recycling programs are seen as costly, said Venetoulis. "The true costs of using raw materials to make things are not reflected in their price," he said.

These uncounted costs include subsidized fossil-fuel extraction and use, environmental impacts and disposal costs, among many others.

"These are real costs that society ends up bearing," Venetoulis said, adding that in the United States, the GPI concept hasn't gone much beyond the circles of academia and environmentalists.

However, it is catching on elsewhere. Indicators like GPI are being calculated for several European nations. And this fall, GPI Atlantic, along with other organizations, is developing a Canadian Index of Wellbeing that integrates social, economic and environmental measures.

Said Walker: "We'll never achieve sustainable development without something like GPI because traditional economics doesn't value sustainability."

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