NO good deed goes unpunished. In recent months, too many conscientious communities have adopted recycling programs only to confront that pessimistic dictum. Almost overnight, promising experiments with recycling have gone from good to bad.
The culprit? Supply and demand.
Communities that recycled newspapers made the discovery first. Second only to beverage containers as a source of solid waste and easy to separate from other trash, newsprint until recently also had a market value of up to $30 a ton. But so many communities made the decision to separate out newspapers that they saturated the market, and now many have to pay to have their newspapers hauled away - often to the dump.
The bottom line: Unless you have a buyer, recycled garbage is still garbage.
That should hardly surprise us. Our throwaway society carelessly discards fully recyclable wastes, even hazardous wastes, simply because there is no market for them.
Every year, for example, we pour over 400 million gallons of used motor oil down storm drains or into landfills. That's equivalent to 35 Exxon Valdez spills, and most of it eventually makes its way into surface or ground water. The terrible irony is that motor oil is almost entirely recyclable as an engine or industrial lubricant.
Why is only 30 percent recycled? There are very few buyers of used motor oil. The rest likely ends up in dumps.
On the East Coast, used oil might be redirected to an unscrupulous apartment building manager who will burn it - with all its lead, cadmium, and arsenic - as a fuel to heat the building. On the West Coast, used oil might be collected and sold as bunker fuel - a dirty fuel for use outside the 12-mile limit of US waters, beyond the jurisdiction of the Coast Guard and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
In Los Angeles a few years ago, a waste oil collection company was found making bunker fuel by blending contaminated oil with hazardous wastes. The discovery came only after neighbors started worrying about oil from the site seeping into their children's sandpile.
Some hazardous wastes don't make it to the dump for less nefarious reasons. A Philadelphia neighborhood was nearly buried recently in a block-long pile of old tires, left by hundreds of curbside dumpers. That illegal tire mountain was removed, but hundreds like it are scattered across the country.
Such piles contain roughly 2 billion tires, which landfills don't want because they tend to ``float'' to the surface. Every year, even though they can be recycled as a fuel or for use in asphalt or retreads, up to 300 million old tires are added to the piles. Less than 10 percent are ever recycled, again because of an insufficient market.
Clearly, America's infant recycling efforts need help from the marketplace. If recycling is to survive into maturity, we need to create markets for recycled products.
Creating those markets is the basis of legislation that we, along with Sen. Tim Wirth (D) Colorado and 63 other members of Congress, introduced earlier this year. Applicable to a wide range of waste products, our bill requires manufacturers of hazardous wastes to recycle an annually-increasing percentage of their overall production, or to purchase EPA-approved credits from other recyclers.
By making producers responsible for recycling a portion of the materials they generate, prices of these materials will more accurately reflect society's cost of managing the resulting wastes. The slight increase consumers may pay for used motor oil (1 to 4 cents a quart), for example, has to be compared with the cost of cleaning up the environment. Any community with a Superfund site knows the choice is easy.
As more and more communities are learning, we really don't have a choice anymore. If we placed our yearly garbage in a convoy of 10-ton trucks, America's garbage would stretch for 145,000 miles - halfway to the moon, or roughly seven times around the equator. Even if we could dig landfills fast enough to hold all of this solid waste, it conceivably could require putting a landfill in everyone's backyard.
The good deed of recycling can go unpunished, and even be rewarded, but only if we learn to convert the marketplace into an ally of environmentalism. The alternative? Well, how many 10-ton garbage trucks can you park in your neighborhood?