Week of 02/12/2006

Dear EarthTalk: Can you explain the tax credits I might be entitled to if I buy a hybrid car? Also, is it true that single-rider hybrids can now use HOV lanes in recognition of their fuel efficiency?

—Mark Timken, Greenwich, CT

If you’ve been wanting a hybrid gasoline-electric vehicle but have been reticent to shell out the extra bucks, 2006 just might be your year. Beginning this past January, in accordance with the new Energy Policy Act, the federal government began awarding unprecedented tax credits to consumers who go hybrid.

Hybrids are more expensive than conventional vehicles because of their costly batteries and because they have two separate engines under each hood. But the new tax credits go a long way toward closing that cost differential. Individuals who purchase any of the new gas-electric hybrids available in the U.S. between 2006-2007 are eligible for up to $3,400 in federal tax credits. The credits are limited to the first 60,000 hybrid vehicles sold by each automaker, though, limiting the savings to those who act early.

According to an analysis by the non-profit Union of Concerned Scientists, which runs the website HybridCenter.org, Toyota’s popular Prius model would typically qualify its buyer for a tax credit topping $3,100, while Honda’s Civic Hybrid would garner about $2,100. Buyers of the new hybrid SUVs from Ford, Toyota and Lexus could expect more than $2,000 in tax credits. The amounts of the credits are based on fuel economy improvements over conventional models of the same class of car or truck, so the hybrids offering the biggest boost in fuel efficiency will generate the largest tax credits for their owners.

And, yes, another component of the Energy Policy Act is the Federal Hybrid HOV Waiver, which allows states to open their high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes to hybrids that get at least 50 percent better fuel efficiency in the city and 25 percent better in combined city-highway miles over conventional models, regardless of how many passengers are present. So far 12 states are participating and many others are sure to follow.

Beyond these new federal incentives, 36 states offer some kind of rebate, incentive or benefit to encourage consumers and businesses to go hybrid. New York Governor George Pataki recently unveiled a comprehensive energy reduction plan that includes a $2,000 state tax credit, discounted highway tolls and HOV-lane access for those who drive hybrids. If the state legislature approves Pataki’s plan, New York taxpayers who buy hybrids could save more than $5,400.

Even some businesses are voluntarily getting in on the act. Search engine giant Google is offering $5,000 to each employee toward the purchase of a new hybrid. And Travelers Insurance announced last month that it would start giving its auto insurance customers who drive hybrids a 10 percent discount.

Demand for hybrids is surging. Combined sales of the first hybrids in 1999 topped out at just a few hundred vehicles. In 2005, American car dealers sold more than 205,000 hybrid cars and SUVs. With all these new incentives in place, and a public more concerned than ever about the price of gas at the pump, automakers are planning to unveil many more hybrid models over the next few years. Whether or not they can keep up with demand is going to be anybody’s guess.

CONTACT: HybridCenter.org, www.hybridcenter.org.

Dear EarthTalk: Some people argue that recycling uses more energy than it saves, and thus it is not worth the effort. Is this true?

—Tigger Fox, Millinocket, Maine

Controversy over the benefits of recycling bubbled up in 1996 when columnist John Tierney posited in a New York Times Magazine article that “recycling is garbage.” “Mandatory recycling programs,” he wrote. ”
offer mainly short-term benefits to a few groups—politicians, public relations consultants, environmental organizations and waste handling corporations—while diverting money from genuine social and environmental problems. Recycling may be the most wasteful activity in modern America

Environmental groups were quick to dispute Tierney, especially on assertions that recycling was doubling energy consumption and pollution while costing taxpayers more money than disposing of plain old garbage. The Natural Resources Defense Council and Environmental Defense, two of the nation’s most influential environmental organizations, each issued reports detailing how municipal recycling programs reduce pollution and the use of virgin resources while decreasing the sheer amount of garbage and the need for landfill space—all for less, not more, than the cost of regular garbage pick-up and disposal.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Solid Waste director, Michael Shapiro, also weighed in: “A well-run curbside recycling program can cost anywhere from $50 to more than $150 per ton
trash collection and disposal programs, on the other hand, cost anywhere from $70 to more than $200 per ton. This demonstrates that, while there’s still room for improvements, recycling can be cost-effective.”

But in 2002, New York City, an early municipal recycling pioneer, found that its much-lauded program was losing money, so it eliminated glass and plastic recycling. According to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, recycling plastic and glass was costing twice as much as disposal. Meanwhile, low demand for the materials meant that much of it was ending up in landfills anyway, despite best intentions.

Other major cities watched closely to see how New York was faring with its scaled back program (the city never discontinued paper recycling), ready to perhaps jump on the bandwagon. But in the meantime, New York City closed its last landfill, and private out-of-state landfills raised prices due to the increased workload of hauling away and disposing of New York’s trash. As a result, glass and plastic recycling became economically viable for the city again, and New York reinstated the program accordingly, with a more efficient system and with more reputable service providers than it had used previously.

According to Chicago Reader columnist Cecil Adams, the lessons learned by New York are applicable everywhere. “Some early curbside recycling programs
waste resources due to bureaucratic overhead and duplicate trash pickups (for garbage and then again for recyclables). But the situation has improved as cities have gained experience.” Adams also says that, if managed correctly, recycling programs should cost cities (and taxpayers) less than garbage disposal for any given equivalent amount of material.

Even though the benefits of recycling over disposal are manifold, individuals should keep in mind that it better serves the environment to “reduce and reuse” before recycling even becomes an option.

CONTACT: Natural Resources Defense Council, www.nrdc.org/cities/recycling/gnyc.asp.