Don't throw recycling on the trash heap

Last summer my wife and I spent more in gas to carry six months of carefully accumulated Dallas and Ft. Worth newspapers to a wastepaper buyer than we received for the 400 pounds of papers. A lot more, in fact. About 10 times as much.

So now we're out of the business, forced to quit recyling by the fact that our concern for the environment can no longer overcome the loss of our time and dollars. Unfortunately, we are not alone.

Industry spokesmen say that recycling is at a critical stage - that the recession and the drop in foreign purchases of American recycled materials, coupled with the lack of stable markets, has virtually wiped out the gains in consumer recycling that took place in the 1970s. Many Americans simply have lost interest in saving newspapers and collecting glass and aluminum because it costs so much more than it's worth.

And American society will be the poorer because of it. As people forget about recycling, more and more surplus paper, metal, and rubber products will find their way to this nation's landfills.

In 1981 the disposal of America's solid wastes cost taxpayers an estimated $6 billion; a figure that is due to skyrocket through the 1980s as ''politically safe'' property for landfills can be found only farther and farther away from cities and suburbs.

Already landfills are overflowing, especially with wastepaper. Nationwide, 40 million tons of paper (almost half of collected municipal wastes) are buried and burned annually at a disposal cost of $25 to $35 a ton.

In addition, this method of waste disposal is compounding our air, land, and water pollution problems. Consequently, the decrease in consumer recycling is not only costing taxpayers, it is also adding to America's environmental problems.

The immediate solution is continued economic recovery. The signs of life in both the housing and auto industries are bright spots on the horizon for recyclers. Wastepaper is used in the construction of tar paper, gypsum board, and insulation for housing, as well as in packaging of automobile parts. And aluminum of course is a major component of automobile and airplane construction.

But, industry spokesmen point out, the recovery is not expected to filter down to recyclers for six months to a year. When it does, many consumers will no longer be saving newspapers and aluminum. Like my wife and me, they will have been driven out by the cost of recycling.

This, the National Association of Recycling Industries (NARI) says, is one of the problems facing their businesses. The ups and downs of the economy wreak havoc, not only on the demand, but also on the supply of the products. Wastepaper and aluminum and other surplus materials are not stockpiled during times of recession. They simply find their way to landfills, never to be recovered.

Consequently, the building of stable, sustained markets is crucial for recycling in America. NARI officials say that before sustained markets can be obtained, the hodgepodge of laws governing recycling industries must be made comparable to the laws controlling virgin commodities.

''The recycling industry has traditionally been subject to restrictive zoning , licensing, recordkeeping and other punitive measures at the local level,'' NARI writes. ''The industry is also discriminated against by federal tax policies, and burdened with excessive transportation rates which severely limit its growth potentials and markets for recycled materials.''

Lobbying efforts by NARI and a few consumers are chipping away at these inequalities. In 1980, for example, Congress passed the Staggers Rail Act which forced railways to provide competitive rates for recycled materials. That bill erased a traditional 50 to 100 percent inequity in rail charges.

But the correction of state, local, and federal policies will not expand the key ingredient in recycling - the utilization of the recovered material. Without markets, the collection of paper, aluminum, rubber, and other materials is actually counterproductive. It produces oversupplies of that particular good, driving down the price and eliminating marginal suppliers.

Methods must be found to ensure outlets for products made from waste material.

''Has anyone thought of urging their boards of education to purchase only paper made with some percentage of recycled fiber, or their state governments, or local governments?'' John McBride, vice-president of NARI, asks. ''That's the way you create a market. It's not as tangible as picking up cans, but it's where it's really at.''

Several state governments have become active in building recyling markets. Maryland, Missouri, Maine, New York, Ohio, Minnesota, and California all have instituted programs to purchase paper products made from recycled fiber. Maryland, for example, purchased $3.7 million worth of reclaimed products in the first four years of its program.

But this is only a drop in the bucket. Every year about 48 million tons of recoverable papers are tossed in the trash and consequently in the dump.

And now, the wastepaper from my family is included.

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