An Idea Worth Considering

Departments - Critical Thinking

June 13, 2013
Harvey Gershman

For the U.S. to continue to reduce the amount of waste it landfills, national legislation that directly supports recycling and waste-to-energy (WTE) is needed. Whether a national resource recovery bill is a possibility within the next decade is unclear, but its potential impact on our waste reduction is crystal.

National resource recovery legislation is likely to accelerate recycling rates and the production and beneficial use of renewable fuels and energy. With a recycling rate goal of 50 percent within a decade of initiation, such legislation would create jobs, reduce our dependence on nonrenewable energy and benefit our environment. The legislation could create a Resource Recovery Trust Fund (RRTF) from two sources: the producers and manufacturers of products made and/or distributed in the U.S. and a disposal tax for waste destined for landfills.

At a penny per pound, if this $20 tax per ton was assessed on the 750 million tons of products shipped for retail sale each year and the 240 million tons of waste disposed in Subtitle D landfills, we could generate nearly $20 billion per year! [This is modest compared to 10 EU countries with landfill taxes ranging from €9 to €86 per metric ton in France and the Netherlands, respectively, with an average landfill tax at €48. (Note: €1 equals approximately $1.31.) In the U.K. the landfill tax is €51, while in Germany there is no landfill tax but waste diversion is controlled by regulation.] This assumes 360 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) are generated annually and 240 million tons are disposed in landfills. To reach a 50 percent national recycling rate, we would need to recycle another 60 million tons per year.

These monies could be distributed to local governments and private companies so they could implement the programs and infrastructure needed to achieve the 50 percent goal, and some could be distributed to individual tax payers in communities that have reached the 50 percent recycling goal. This would result in a credit of approximately $75 per taxpayer per year, which could help pay for higher-cost services and support “buy recycled” programs. The remaining funds (approximately $9 billion) could be distributed to—and reinvested by—organizations and government through a variety of programs and financing measures, such as grants for equipment and facilities that process additional recyclables, for education programs, for pay-as-you-throw services and for Enterprises Funds—a new version of the Urban Planning Grant Program of the late 1970s.

The development of sustainable waste management and recycling infrastructure can be supported by investment tax credits and/or tax-exempt bonds. Other federal and state planning and research programs could be supported, including a national database of recycling and waste data or a national resource recovery campaign. WTE projects could receive funding for demonstration facilities and support for renewable energy and fuels production, and combined heat and power projects would be encouraged too.

Once the nation reaches a 50 percent recycling rate, the legislation’s “sunset provisions” would engage, and the RRTF could be reduced to 15 to 25 percent of its original level to maintain and address increases in waste generation. Alternatively, after reaching 50 percent recycling, funds could support the development of waste conversion and energy recovery facilities until we reach the time where landfills are receiving no more than 5 to 10 percent of waste. Imagine what waste management in the U.S. would look like after 10 years if this type of legislative support were put in place. We’d be recycling at the same levels of the countries we envy, we’d have a sustainable waste management and recycling infrastructure, and we’d be generating more energy from trash, while burying very little in landfills. We would create the sustainable ethos we have always hoped for in the U.S.