Community Recycling Reduces Trash Trail
While Recycling programs catch on across the US, piles of material mount, waiting for reuse
WELLESLEY, MASS. — EVEN on a midweek morning, this community's municipal-waste facility is buzzing with activity.
A man drops off newspapers at the recycling area. A woman arrives with a carload of old books. A father and son hoist a used rug into their truck from the "take it or leave it" pile.
Residents of this suburban community west of Boston have no trouble tackling trash.
Wellesley's Recycling Disposal Facility, a model program, has been in operation for three decades. Besides handling a wide variety of recyclable material, the center runs its own yard-waste composting operation, has a secondhand book swap, and takes in just about any kind of old furniture or used household appliance that comes down the pike. The philosophy here is to rediscover rubbish and reuse, recycle, and recover as much of it as possible.
"I've lived here for 50 years, and at first I thought it was crazy [to recycle]. Then you get to be embarrassed if you don't do it right," says Virginia Callahan, as she tosses her used bottles and cans into recycling bins.
Wellesley residents, like those in communities across the United States and in many parts of the world, are making ambitious efforts to cut down on solid waste. As landfill space becomes scarce and the world's waste stream increases, more communities than ever are experimenting with recycling programs, environmentalists say. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the number of recycling programs in US communities almost doubled over the last five years.
John Young, research associate at the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, says communities are looking beyond the idea of simply dumping or burning trash.
"Within the United States, I think the most interesting thing going on is the shift away from landfill disposal of solid waste," Mr. Young says.
"I think, incrementally, recycling programs are winning out, or at least [it is] being recognized that they are economically better than building incinerators. Environmentally, they are significantly better," he adds.
According to the most recent EPA figures, Americans generated 180 million tons of solid waste in 1988, up from 160 million tons in 1986. Of that 1988 total, 73 percent was put in landfills, 14 percent incinerated, and 13 percent recycled.
So what are Americans dumping into their trash cans? Paper takes up a significant part of the rubbish. According to the EPA, the breakdown of the US solid-waste stream in 1988 was 40 percent paper, 18 percent yard waste, 9 percent metals, 8 percent plastics, 7 percent glass, 7 percent food wastes, and 11 percent other materials.
In 1988, the agency set a goal of recycling 25 percent of the total waste stream by this year. But EPA officials say it will be at least a year or more before 1992 recycling statistics are available.
"I guess the feeling here is that we're not sure whether we're going to reach the goal, but what we've seen is the growth [in community recycling programs] and we're moving in the right direction," says William MacLeod, environmental- protection specialist in the agency's Office of Solid Waste.
Even if the US does not meet the 25 percent recycling goal this year, some states and municipalities have clearly made progress. New Jersey, Washington State, and Minnesota all recycle more than 25 percent of their waste. Nine states now have bottle- and can-redemption laws.
SEATTLE has operated a successful program since 1981 that has boosted the city's recycling rate to 40 percent. Under the program, residents pay for trash pickup by the number of rubbish cans they generate each week.
A 10-week pilot program involving 100 families in East Hampton, N.Y., reached an 84 percent recycling rate in 1987. The Center for the Biology of Natural Systems at Queens College in New York City, sponsor of the project, says 85 to 90 percent of today's US solid-waste stream can be recycled.
But environmentalists say recycling isn't enough. The problem is getting industry to buy the growing amount of recycled material that communities collect.
"As long as it is cheaper for industry to use virgin resources, they're going to use them," says Lisa Collaton, policy analyst with the Environmental Action Coalition in Takoma Park, Md. "We need to pass legislation that contains both carrots and sticks to encourage the use of recycled materials."
European countries are making great strides in encouraging companies to recycle and reduce raw materials in production. Germany has recently initiated a system that requires retailers to accept a variety of recyclable items from consumers.
"This system in Germany is really unlike anything else and is having a major impact in Europe," Young says. "It's diverting a large portion of the waste stream out of the public system."
Eco-labeling programs, popular in Europe, are also pushing industry to recycle more. Labels on products provide consumers with information about recycled contents and other environmental data. At least seven countries are exploring or currently implementing national labeling systems while the European Community is considering its own single labeling system, Young says. Two private groups in the US, Green Cross and Green Seal, are also involved in environmental labeling.
In the US, industry is generally free from federal requirements to use recyclable items, with most regulation coming from the state and local level. State packaging laws, for example, require industry to make packaging contain a certain amount of recyclable material and meet environmental standards. Packaging material makes up about one-third of all municipal solid waste.
"What this packaging legislation does is try to ease some of the burden off the taxpayers' shoulders and put it on industry's shoulders in terms of trying to get them to use recycling material whenever they can," Ms. Collaton says.
Besides just recycling, environmentalists say industry needs to reduce waste in production as well. Known as source reduction, the idea is to curb the use of raw materials, energy, and toxic chemicals early in the pipeline before they become waste. Massachusetts has initiated an ambitious program, known as the Toxics Use Reduction Act, which aims to decrease industrial-toxic-chemical waste 50 percent by 1997. Other countries are moving in this direction as well, Young says.
Industry needs to concentrate on getting the most use from a product while using a minimal amount of energy, Young says. "If you put in the technology that can accomplish something with less energy ... then you save a lot of environmental damage.... You can do a lot of things with a pound of steel. You can make it so it can be used 100 times, or you can make it so it can be thrown right away."