Cities are learning to save money with what protesters of the 1970s had made a national crusade - garbage. Faced with growing amounts of waste, a shortage of landfills, and an increase in landfill costs, some cities have adopted recycling as a way to cut costs - and perhaps even to make a little money.
At last count more than 200 cities were making curbside garbage pickup a regular recycling event for their residents, according to Gary Liss, chairman of the National Recycling Coalition.
Americans produce 154 million tons of garbage every year and spend $4 billion to collect and dispose of it. By 1985, this figure may be $6 billion. Enter municipal recycling of such items as bottles, newspapers, and aluminum cans.
Cities are adopting the process and technology developed by environmentalists a decade earlier. From Minneapolis, Minn., and Palo Alto, Calif., to Cleveland Heights, Ohio, and Islip, N.Y., curbside recyling has become the norm. Municipalities that have curbside collections divert 10 to 20 percent of their waste into reusable goods or energy, Mr. Liss said.
The Cleveland Heights program, a model effort in Ohio, takes only bundled newspapers. Even so, the city figures it saves $10.35 on every ton it doesn't have to cart to a landfill, said Laurie Rosenberg, coordinator of the two-year-old program. She said the city saved about $10,400 the first year. It grossed $30,000 in revenue from paper sales, she said. About 35 to 40 percent of the people participate because of a strong publicity campaign. ''We look to break even and reduce solid waste, rather than make money,'' she said.
The first two years that Palo Alto used curbside pickup for newspapers, glass , metal cans, motor oil, and small scrap metal, it made a gross profit of $43, 000. But it gives half its newspaper profits to a local charity that previously had a monopoly on newspaper recycling.
In Minneapolis, volunteer participation is a key ingredient in the once-a-month curbside collection of newspapers, cans, and bottles. Volunteer block coordinators post signs the day before collection, distribute brochures and calendars, and answer any questions.
Evanston, Ill., encourages recycling by giving participants a small bundle of fireplace logs each time they recycle. Previously, the city paid a contractor to dispose of the logs.
Islip, N.Y., residents can put almost a whole household of items on their curbs so long as the items have been separated. Newspapers, corrugated cartons, bottles, and cans go in separate waste barrels and are picked up each week.
While recycling is voluntary in many cities, in Woodbury, N.J., Bloomington, Ind., and some other communities it is mandatory. In Woodbury, failure to stack newspapers and separate glass can cost a citizen up to $500.
Two years ago, escalating landfill costs forced Woodbury officials to devise the plan. According to city officials, about $3,000 a month is saved by cutting the trash volume in half.
Municipal curbside recycling is not the only inroad made by urban ecologists. They also have provided economic incentives, such as money and food, to encourage residents to take their trash to recycling centers.
* At grocery stores in south Florida, the Durbin Paper Stock Company takes shoppers' waste papers and pays them with vouchers redeemable for food at those stores. Fibres International of Bellevue, Wash., does likewise, and also trades aluminum cans for food through its ''drop and shop'' stations at seven stores.
* The Recycling Station in Toledo, Ohio, has a railroad-yard theme designed for family appeal, offering fun and cash for many kinds of recyclables. It features Casey the can-crushing dragon and Greta the glass-hopper.
* The Recyling Circus, operated by a California-based nationwide recycling company that wanted to change the junkyard image of its operations, also adopted a theme. The reducer machines are disguised with clown faces and animal heads; families who come to sell their garbage feed bottles and cans to the machines.
* Aluminum cans now can be recycled through ''reverse vending machines.'' These machines, located near shopping centers, pay cash for trash.