The mixed bag of community recycling

It's barely daylight in Rhode Island's capital city, and Dani Simons is cruising around in her Saturn with an eye on the bins and bags that dot residential streets.

By simply observing what's left curbside for garbage trucks, she gets a sense of how Providence is faring in its efforts to toss out less and recycle more. The city, which recycles about 10 or 11 percent of all waste, lags behind most of the state, and Ms. Simons is one of the dedicated people here trying to give recycling a boost.

What she finds this day is a mixed bag: On some streets, blue and green recycling bins line the sidewalks like dutiful sentries, but in some less-affluent parts of town, bins are few and trash barrels are stuffed to overflowing.

Thirty-two years after capturing the popular imagination during the first observance of Earth Day, America's recycling revolution appears to have hit a wall. Since 1995, the share of waste that is recycled has barely budged each year – inching from 26 percent that year to 28.1 percent in 1999, to 30.1 in 2000 (the latest data available).

Reasons for the stall-out are varied – and disputed.

Some experts see a fading commitment on the part of the public to push toward recycling fully half of all waste material – a target many advocates still insist is achievable. Others note that recycling gains have been partially offset by the reality that each American today discards almost 50 percent more trash than on that first Earth Day in 1970. Still others say recycling needs to break out of its current emphasis on households and break through to businesses.

"Residential recycling is 20 years old in most communities and is mature," says Susan Hubbard, who runs the residential recycling program in St. Paul, Minn. "It gets harder every time we try to add a new material." There's much more opportunity to recover waste materials from the commercial sector, which accounts for 75 percent of the overall waste stream, than from homes, where low-hanging fruit such as aluminum cans is already being harvested, she adds.

Still, recycling has become ingrained enough that today 140 million Americans recycle – more than the number who vote in national elections. And the fact that in 2000, recycling edged above 30 percent creates optimism that the EPA's target of 35 percent could be reached by 2005.

Kate Krebs of the National Recycling Coalition in Alexandria, Va., likens the way citizens recycle to the way people now automatically reach for their seat belts whenever they get behind the wheel. "I'm really thrilled with how Americans have taken on the recycling habit," she says.

She now sees people in public places hesitating to put recyclables in trash cans, and setting aside bottles and plastic cups in the hope that they will be recycled. Places like sports stadiums are difficult venues to start recycling, but they hold high potential for diverting waste from landfills or incinerators, she adds.

Here in Rhode Island, the smallest state, there is just one landfill, so trash disposal has a certain degree of urgency. With barely 1 million residents, compared with New York City's 8 million, Rhode Island still recycles more newspaper, glass, aluminum, steel cans, and plastic bottles each week than does the Big Apple.

Nationally, Rhode Island's 15 to 20 percent recycling rate might appear ordinary, but comparing recycling from state to state can be difficult, because of varying interpretations of the data. Rhode Island is very strict in its definitions, but wherever it ranks, officials know the state must do better.

"It's especially important for us to divert as much material as we can from the landfill, since it's a finite resource," says John Trevor, recycling program manager for the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corp., a quasi-governmental agency.

When it comes to trash in Rhode Island, all roads lead to the corporation's 200-acre complex in Johnston. The landfill, which rises 230 feet, may be able to remain open another 10 or 12 years. After that, with no incinerators, Rhode Island could be forced to export trash to another state, an expensive proposition that New York City already wrestles with.

To extend the landfill's life span for as long as possible, recycling must grow. Part of that push naturally centers on the largest city, Providence, where the recycling rate is currently about half that of the state's municipal pacesetters.

That's where Simons – the Saturn-driving sentinel – has a role. She coordinates neighborhood programs for Groundwork Providence, a nonprofit organization that works with residents, community groups, businesses, and government to improve the urban environment. Part of her job is to recruit and train recycling captains, who then encourage their neighbors and friends to recycle more – and change buying habits to reduce the volume of waste in the first place.

On streets with few curbside bins, where concerns about making ends meet often trump efforts to be earth-friendly, Simons and her corps of recycling captains are trying to make inroads via a timeless method: educational outreach.

They talk with people wherever they are – on the street, in the local grocery, and even in church. Simons, for example, encourages placing recycling information in church bulletins and announcements.

"The biggest factor in determining who recycles is whether your neighbor recycles," she says.

Recycling challenges are more numerous in urban settings than in the suburbs, where recycling has its deepest roots. City neighborhoods are more diverse economically, linguistically, and ethnically, and people move in and out of them at a faster pace – making education a priority.

But confusion can impede the highly educated, too, says Simons, who recounts that a Brown University doctoral candidate confessed that she couldn't remember what to recycle.

To help simplify matters, the entire state adopted a two-bin system in 1995: green for paper products and blue for everything else that can be recycled. It's all sorted by pros at the state's giant "materials recovery" facility, who make sure no green bottles are mixed into the clear glass bottles, and no No. 2 plastics are lumped in with the PVC. This high-quality sorting is important, because recyclables are worth more on the market if they are largely free of impurities.

Commodity markets essentially dictate what is recyclable. "A material that might be readily recyclable in one part or region of the country might not be in another, which is why every program is just a little different," Ms. Krebs says. "There's no cookie cutter on how recycling works in America."

Rhode Island, with its single landfill, can centralize recycling up to a point, but local styles differ. The two models here, as elsewhere, are curbside pickup and drop-off programs, with convenience easily making curbside the more popular choice. Success stories, however, can be found in both camps in the Ocean State.

Warwick, population 85,000, boasts a curbside program with a 25 percent recycling rate. It produces some of the best results in the Maximum Recycling Program, a state initiative that encourages municipalities to recycle up to 40 percent of their trash. As towns sign new contracts with private waste haulers, they are mandated to participate in the program.

Chris Beneduce calls the recycling shots from his modest cinder-block office in Warwick's public works complex. During the past five years, his operation has coaxed local taxpayers into recycling more – progress that has saved Warwick about $1 million in landfill dumping fees. The savings occur because the state-run landfill charges cities and towns $32 per ton of trash they bring to the landfill – but handles their recyclables for free.

His system relies heavily on public education and repetitive messages as a tried-and-true strategy. Elsewhere in the state, though, the approach is less subtle.

In South Kingstown, the town requires residents to put a tag on every one of their trash bags – and charges $1.20 for each tag. Soon, the price will go up a nickel.

The US Environmental Protection Agency has cited South Kingstown as one of the nation's pay-as-you-throw success stories. There are numerous variations on this pocketbook-driven theme, which which has grown in popularity across the country during the past decade.

South Kingstown's results have been impressive. After going to a pay-as-you-throw system, waste generation dropped dramatically and residential recycling rates of 40 percent are common.

Residents used to pay a flat annual fee of $92 to drop off their waste at the Rose Hill Regional Transfer Station, no matter how much they discarded. Now, they are motivated to set aside recyclables (accepted at no charge), so that they'll have less trash and buy fewer tags. The average four-person household can save about $30 a year by limiting its trash to one bag a week.

And now that the transfer station asks for recyclables to be separated only into blue and green bins (instead of a dozen former categories), recycling is easier than ever.

The next frontiers of recycling, say advocates here and across the US, are composting (especially on a municipal scale for yard wastes), apartment buildings and condominium complexes, and promoting greater manufacturer responsibility for products, such as paint, carpeting, and computers, throughout their life cycles.

Headway is also is needed, some experts say, in educating people to buy recycled products. Recycling is a feel-good activity for many Americans, but unless they buy products made from recycled content, the loop isn't closed – and those high-number plastic bottles might yet end up in incinerators instead of back in consumers' hands.

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