As communities continue to wrestle with how best to dispose of the growing piles of garbage in their midst, recycling is getting more attention. In Chicago, where a moratorium on new landfills exists, Mayor Harold Washington has declared a goal of recycling 25 percent of the city's solid wastes within five years. New York City recently set aside funds to establish glass- and paper-recycling centers.
Minnesota's Twin Cities Metropolitan Council, a regional unit embracing 200 local governments, has also launched a voluntary recycling plan that will become mandatory by 1988 if it is not already successful by that time.
The Minnesota council plans to build three or four garbage incinerators to back up its new policy to end land disposal of any processable waste by 1990. ``Rather than rely on one type of service delivery, we're trying to keep our solid-waste system flexible,'' notes council senior planner Paul Smith.
``Governments are really the only ones in a position to make a serious effort to dramatically reduce the amount of waste,'' says Jackie Warren, a senior staff lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council. She says materials could be mechanically separated after collection.
By conservative estimates, culling out newspapers, glass, aluminum, compost, and the like could reduce the volume of the nation's trash heading for landfills or incinerators by 25 to 35 percent.
And some recycling proponents insist the potential dent could ultimately be as high as 75 percent.
The Northern California Recycling Association says an aggressive program in any community can effectively reuse 40 to 75 percent of its solid waste within the first five years.
The problems blocking widespread recycling are chiefly ones of financing and determination.
Environmentalists say recycling -- essentially launched in the 1970s by idealistic college students collecting bottles and cans -- has never really been given a fair try. They say local governments balk at trying to get necessary citizen cooperation and dismiss the concept as too expensive.
Yet Mary Lou VanDeventer, who heads a small California publishing company that puts out technical papers on recycling, says surveys in a variety of states consistently show that more than 90 percent polled want more recycling.
She estimates that in her city of Berkeley, Calif., which currently has a moratorium on garbage-burner construction, a recycling program effectively absorbs more than one-third of the solid-waste stream.
``People want not just the Scout troop to come every six months, but a recycling collection service that is just as convenient and reliable as garbage collection service,'' says Mrs. VanDeventer. ``They would use it in preference if it were available, but in most places it's not.''
Aluminum companies have one of the best and most profitable recycling programs going, according to Ron Musselwhite of the US Conference of Mayors. He says he can take cans to his local supermarket and get 18 cents a pound for them.
But transportation costs and the lack of a ready market for recycled materials often make the process more costly than it may be worth.
In Arlington, Va., where Mr. Musselwhite lives, baled newspapers are picked up at curbside twice a month. Still, the city barely breaks even on newspapers, he says. Glass is ``worst of all,'' because it's expensive to ship and brings little in dollar returns, he says.
But environmentalists say local governments must look at recycling as a disposal option, like landfill and incineration. They must be willing to put out money to make it work instead of insisting that it pay for itself.
``We've got to get past this mental block where government somehow thinks it's wrong to pay for recycling, but OK to pay to dump the stuff in the ground,'' says Joanna Hoelscher of the Chicago-based Citizens for a Better Environment. ``Every study that's been done shows that even when the government contributes to recycling programs -- to help make them more economically viable than citizen voluntary efforts -- it's still cheaper than landfill or incineration.''
VanDeventer suggests that one reason recycling lacks more widespread interest is that garbage collectors are effectively in competition for materials that could be recycled. They don't want to give up their hold on a very profitable industry, she says.