WHEN Giant Food Inc. started a pilot recycling program 10 weeks ago, it wasn't ready for the response it received. Its four test sites in suburban Washington, D.C., got so many aluminum cans and plastic bottles that the company increased its collection schedule from once to twice a week. Then it started collecting every day.
``And we still couldn't keep up with it,'' recalls company spokesman Mark Roeder. So reluctantly, the 150-store grocery chain announced Friday that it is discontinuing that part of its recycling effort.
Americans are getting into recycling with a vengeance.
For example: 82 percent of the households in Olympia, Wash., have signed up to receive special recycling containers. Barrington, Ill., claims that 92 percent of its residents participate in its voluntary curbside recycling program.
Experts agree that interest in recycling is expanding rapidly.
``It's growing by leaps and bounds,'' says Ron Musselwhite, solid-waste program manager for the US Conference of Mayors.
``Wow,'' summed up BioCycle magazine in March, ``what a year for curbside recycling!''
The magazine's annual survey found that the number of curbside recycling programs nationwide increased from 1,042 in 1988 to 1,518 last year - a jump of 46 percent in one year. Based in Emmaus, Pa., BioCycle now estimates the total at 1,600. Curbside recycling involves households and businesses that sort and set out recyclables for collection. The most common material set out: newspaper.
Part of the reason for the jump in recycling is grass-roots interest. Public-opinion polls have shown consistent support for the idea. Last August a Gallup poll conducted for the Glass Packaging Institute found that 54 percent of consumers would switch to a recyclable container if the food or beverage container they were currently buying could not be recycled.
In its current issue, BioCycle surveyed 18 weekly recycling programs around the country and found average participation to be 75 percent (ranging from a low of 49 percent in Trenton, N.J., to Barrington's high of 92 percent).
Another reason for recycling's growing popularity is encouragement from state and local governments.
At least 24 states have enacted comprehensive recycling laws in the last three years. They join Oregon, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin which passed similar laws earlier in the decade.
A few years ago, states that called for recycling 25 percent of their waste were considered bold and innovative. Today, that goal is the norm. At least eight states - California, Indiana, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, New York, Vermont, and Washington - have adopted a goal of recycling 50 percent of their garbage within the next 15 years or less. Maine has the most ambitious goal: Half its trash is to be recycled by 1994.
Sensing an opportunity to bolster their image and, perhaps, make some money, many corporations have announced their own resource-recovery programs.
Stone Container Corporation, the Chicago-based packaging maker, announced a breakthrough in recycling some of its products a few months ago. Pittsburgh's H. J. Heinz Company has developed a new recyclable ketchup bottle that will be introduced next year.
This week, the Dart Container Corporation of Mason, Mich., announced a joint polystyrene recycling program with the state of Michigan. Polystyrene is the material used in foam cups, fast-food packaging, and grocery store meat trays. Dart claims to produce 60 percent of the nation's foam cups. The company is aiming its recycling efforts at schools and institutions.
``We are seeing a really positive response from two kinds of people,'' says Patty Ireland, environmental affairs representative for Dart.
Older Americans who remember the recycling drives during World War II are eager, and almost relieved, to start the process again, Ms. Ireland says. And young people in or just out of school have accepted sorting out reusable material from the garbage they throw out.
When one of Dart's recycling program at a Michigan elementary school was covered by a television news program, Dart got responses from more than 100 schools interested in the program. People seem willing to remove food contamination from their fast-food containers to aid the recycling process. The company is developing a machine to do that job, so that the remains of a cheeseburger are removed from its foam package.
``Eventually, we have to make money on it,'' Ireland says of the company's new program, even though the economics of it are not immediately clear.
Yet much more has to be done, environmentalists and policymakers agree. Americans still recycle only about 13 percent of their trash - far less than in Europe and Japan.
According to the Environmental Defense Fund, US consumers and industry dispose of: enough aluminum to rebuild the nation's entire commercial air fleet every three months; enough iron and steel to continuously supply all the nation's automakers; enough glass bottles and jars to fill the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center every two weeks.
The National Governors' Association, in a soon-to-be-released report, recommends that the US aim to recycle 30 percent of its garbage by 1995, 40 percent by the year 2000, and, eventually, more than half of its waste stream.
But the biggest obstacle to successful recycling is finding markets for recovered materials, the group says.
So it recommends that federal, state, and local governments establish policies to promote the reuse and purchase of recycled materials, that the US set voluntary standards for how much material various industries should be recycling, and that states develop grants, tax incentives, and other economic programs to attract recycling industries.