Berkeley’s Recycling Fee Could Backfire

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The City of Berkeley is considering charging property owners for curbside recycling in an effort to close a large budget deficit, the Chron reports. As the paper previously noted, Berkeley trash collection revenues have declined in recent years in part because residents are recycling more. The city has traditionally charged homeowners by the size of their garbage cans, and because more residents have switched to smaller cans, Berkeley is taking in fewer collection fees. Nonetheless, a new recycling fee could backfire.

Charging for curbside recycling could prove to be an eco-disincentive if it’s set up wrong. Yes, it will bring in more revenues, but it also could prompt residents to recycle less in order to avoid higher fees. The key will be to make sure that the recycling fee is lower than the one for trash collecting. That way, there will still be an economic incentive to recycle instead of throwing away paper, bottles, cans, and plastics.

In addition, if the city decides to implement a curbside recycling fee, then it needs to also charge residents an even higher fee for dropping off recycling at the West Berkeley transfer station. Otherwise, residents will have a financial incentive to get in their cars, and drive their recycling to the waterfront on their own, thereby adding to greenhouse gas emissions.

Unfortunately, one side effect of city recycling fees is that they could prompt residents to drive their recyclables to private recycling centers that actually pay for the products. And that, too, would increase car trips — and thus harm Berkeley's ability to meet its ambitious climate-change goals.

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