... and the flowers on the lunch table are grown from yard waste

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Most conventions have a caterer; this one has its own recycler to turn proceedings papers into tomorrow's newsprint. The flowers on the lunch table are grown from yard waste.

And talk is of a future when computerized garbage trucks may weigh the trash and mail you a bill.

Welcome to the Seventh National Recycling Congress, for which a record 1,200 leading recyclers recently converged on the Midwest. The convention comes on the heels of federal legislation introduced earlier this month that seeks to form a new national trash policy.

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At the conference, private-sector, government, and nonprofit activists see a policy shift in which garbage is being regarded more as an economic good and not just as a public-works issue. And as America rediscovers a pre-1950s frugality, they see solid waste as a resource to reducing waste in the overall US economy as well.

Currently an estimated 10 percent of garbage is being recycled nationwide, compared to an estimated 25 percent of the total solid waste stream during World War II. The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that Japan and some West European nations currently recycle half their municipal waste.

An EPA policy plan announced last week and the bill introduced by Sen. Max Baucus (D) of Montana would establish a 25 to 35 percent reduction in the municipal solid waste stream as a national goal within the next four years.

Despite differences over bottle bills, solid-waste interest groups increasingly have come together in a new philosophy of ``integrated solid-waste strategy,'' says Gary Liss, vice-president of the National Recycling Coalition. This involves an emphasis on reducing garbage before it's even thrown out, utilizing recycling in concert with other technologies. Trends nationwide include treating recycling as a component of local economic development plans, using tax incentives and garbage fees to encourage recycling.

Senator Baucus's bill, a reauthorization of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) with new twists, provides for a strong federal regulatory role and funds for state programs.

It is a $400 million program that would be funded through a $7 a ton tax on non-recycled packaging materials, and would give recycled goods preferential treatment in vying for government contracts. It would also establish a system of federal permits for solid-waste disposal with rules to encourage waste reduction.

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