Taking out the trash

Photo by the U.S. Army Environmental Command.
Photo by the U.S. Army Environmental Command.

This post was written by OK Policy volunteer Zoraya Hightower. Zoraya completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Tulsa, and this fall she will begin a Master of Environmental Management program at Yale.

Trash is a surprisingly controversial topic. For decades, trash and how it is disposed of has been disputed in newspapers, community meetings, and classrooms across America. A widely quoted 1996 article by John Tierney, “Recycling is Garbage”, concludes:

Rinsing out tuna cans and tying up newspapers may make you feel virtuous, but recycling… may be the most wasteful activity in modern America: a waste of time and money, a waste of human and natural resources.

A major argument against recycling is that it reproduces the labor and equipment utilized in a waste management program. Every route will need at least two collection services, one for landfill disposal and one for recycling, which requires twice the trucks, twice the emissions, and twice the manpower. However, the extraction and processing of new materials requires as many or more resources. Therefore, study after study has shown that natural resources tend to be conserved with recycling programs.

The accusation that recycling uses many human resources is true. Waste management tends to be labor intensive, and recycling adds sorting to the already labor-intensive collection. This translates into additional costs, but it also means local jobs. For the same amount of waste, recycling creates six jobs for every one job in landfill collection, and many of these pay wages above the national average. The Oklahoma Recycling Association credits recycling with creating 5,000 Oklahoma jobs, representing a $300 million payroll.

Evidence suggests the extra costs incurred by this increase in jobs does not make recycling less economical.  Beyond the well-recorded environmental benefits, recycling programs across the nation have proven to save money in the long run. With economies of scale, it should cost less to collect and sell recyclable materials than it costs to pay landfill disposal fees. According to columnist Cecil Adams: “If managed correctly, recycling programs should cost cities (and taxpayers) less than garbage disposal for any given equivalent of material.”

Is this true for Oklahoma?

Recycling is relatively expensive in our state.  We have the fourth cheapest landfill disposal rates in the nation. Oklahoma spent, on average, $22.22 per ton of waste in 2011, while Tulsa’s 2010 rates were $12.00 per ton, positioning both as contestants for the national low. We even have trash from surrounding states pouring into Oklahoma landfills. However, rates may eventually increase; landfill space tends to become more expensive as cheap land is used up and environmental regulations tighten. We would do well to put waste management systems in place now that are not dependent on these rates.

Oklahoma’s past…

Until recently, Tulsa had a subscription recycling service. Customers had to pay an additional $2 per month if they wanted curbside collection every other week. The service had no economic incentive for customers, yet more than 14,000 families were subscribed in 2010, representing 12 percent of eligible customers.

However, the relatively low number of participants made curbside recycling inefficient, because collection services may drive several streets with few or no stops. In Tulsa, each recycling truck drove over 120 miles per week with limited actual collections.

 Oklahoma City has a more accessible curbside program which offers weekly curbside pickup free of charge. Of Oklahoma City residences, just over half were subscribed in 2010, while about a fourth recycled weekly. Still, participation in Oklahoma City is low. Again this translates to inefficient collection miles.

Low participation rates give both recycling programs similar financial problems. Fixed costs, such as equipment, fuel, and driving time, are not offset by the tonnage dependent revenues. Once a city provides curbside recycling, its best interest is to divert as much waste as possible to sellable recycling.  But in terms of efficiency, Oklahoma has a long way to go. In 2011 both Oklahoma City and Tulsa diverted less than 10 percent of waste to recycling compared to the national average of 35 percent.

…and Oklahoma’s future

In October of 2012, Tulsa switched to a new curbside recycling system. Eligible residents received a 96 gallon recycling cart free of charge. Garbage bins come in three different sizes, and smaller sizes translate to a lower monthly payment. Before the switch, Tulsa peaked at fewer than 16,000 households.  By March of this year, Tulsa’s participation jumped to 110,000 households, a whopping 94 percent of residencies. Tulsa has seen continual weekly increase in tonnage recycled. This has allowed the disposal, sorting, and selling cycle to become increasingly efficient.

Tulsa’s residents have also become more efficient at recycling; in the first three months they delivered recyclable waste with around an 85 percent recovery rate. Over the next three months, more than 95 percent of received materials were recycled. In the past, Oklahoma recycling programs have been largely underutilized and inefficient.  As Tulsa’s residents and its waste management team become more knowledgeable, the recycling program will become increasingly efficient. As landfill disposal becomes increasingly expensive, Tulsa may serve as a good model for other Oklahoma municipalities.


The opinions stated in guest articles are not necessarily those of OK Policy, its staff, or its board. To see our guidelines for blog submissions, click here.

7 thoughts on “Taking out the trash

  1. The Village (NW OKC) has a contract with a company called Recyclebank. We get large carts, same size as the garbage carts (so each residence can have a total of 3 large carts). They’re green, and evidently when the cart is loaded into the truck, the contents are weighed. Each residence is then credited points for the amount of recyclables they have, which can be converted into coupons for local shops and restaurants, as well as national brands. Very nice program.

    1. I had no idea that existed anywhere in Oklahoma! Thanks for posting this comment, it really is some food for thought for me as well as something to research further. What a great use of technology to incentive residents!

  2. I live in Warr Acres. The only way to recycle in this town is to take your items to the recycling center near City Hall. It’s a cumbersome process that discourages people from recycling.

    Cities that are concerned about waste disposal might do well to encourage less waste in the first place. A refund fee on bottles, a graduated garbage disposal fee based upon the volume of trash you toss, (the way Tulsa’s new program operates), banning plastic shopping bags, and similar mandates would go a long way toward diminishing the amount of stuff we carry to the curb and bury in landfills.

    1. I completely agree! However given the response to Tulsa’s recent efforts to move to a volume based disposal fee, we have to realize that these things have to be done under the right circumstances and in the right community. If people get riled up about receiving recycling bins free of charge, they certainly won’t react well to banning plastic shopping bags.

      These aren’t my words, but it was said we would do well to remember that reusing and reducing are the first r’s and we should recycle only when the other two are no longer viable. Your proposals are certainly in line with that.

      Hopefully, we Okies can continue to educate ourselves and realize both the social, environmental, and economic value of your suggestions so that these mandates are politically feasible in the future.

  3. Our family had been recycling at Fort Sill. However, recently Duncan, Marlow & Comanche city governments recently joined together in beginning a recycling program for our communities. Our program is identical to what Melody described & our family loves it. It takes plastic #1-6, cans,cardboard, newspaper as well as office paper & magazines & we don’t have to separate the types of items. While I’ve heard some complaints about the cost to all residents, most of our block is participating in the program. My regular trash cart is less full(easier to move to the curb)and we’re thrilled with the savings to our landfills as well as our cost to transport our materials to Ft. Sill–we’re pleased to help save the earth!

    1. It is great that the states that tend to produce the most waste and recycle the least are changing their mindset and that cities are giving us the opportunity to become better consumers in such a convenient way. And who says that the knowledge that you are “doing your part” isn’t worth every penny it costs?

      Your comment is wonderful and encouraging to hear! Hopefully over time and with increased efficiency you and your city can enjoy the feel-good as well as some decreased costs. Best of luck!

  4. Muskogee residents are being asked by survey if they would pay $10.50 for two curbside recycling pickups per month. Bartlesville currently has a dump off site for recycling, which is not efficient at all. They would like to move toward Tulsa’s model.

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