Finding New Ways Not To Throw It Away

Massachusetts is preparing a comprehensive package-recycling law that would encourage both recycling and the collection of recyclable materials

AT Polaroid Corporation's manufacturing plant west of Boston, the cardboard cartons that hold camera parts are reused several times; then they are recycled. And the company tries not to use polystyrene packaging in its operations.

Increasingly, manufacturers such as Polaroid are trying to be good environmental citizens. This is occurring as businesses face growing political pressure to help reduce the nation's 180 million-ton annual waste stream.

This year, however, Massachusetts may become the first state to enact a comprehensive package-recycling law. It could become a model for other states facing garbage crises. Gov. William Weld (R) is expected to propose legislation in a few weeks.

Towns and cities across the United States are increasing their collection of recyclable materials such as glass, aluminum cans, plastic, and paper, but the demand for such materials has to be raised, environmentalists say. Since large amounts of packaging are used by manufacturers in producing and distributing goods, it is a logical place to begin. This packaging makes up a third of all municipal solid waste.

Mr. Weld's proposal will likely include elements of a ballot initiative proposed in 1990 by the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group (MassPIRG), an environmental and public policy organization. Although a lawsuit pushed this initiative off the ballot, Weld endorsed the idea in his campaign for governor.

Both MassPIRG and industry organizations support plans that would offer businesses several ways to comply. For example, industry associations say packaging for consumer goods should meet one of the following criteria:

* Be reusable five times.

* Contain 25 percent recycled material.

* Be made of a material that is recycled at a 25 percent rate.

* Use 10 percent less material by weight than it did five years before.

MassPIRG's version includes similar criteria, but Amy Perry, MassPIRG spokeswoman, notes that in the industry plan, the new standards "don't kick in until 65 percent of cities and towns" have a sophisticated collection program for recyclable materials.

Ted Frier, spokesman for the governor's Office of Environmental Affairs, says the Weld administration is working on "very strong" legislation that will "incorporate as many carrots and sticks" as possible to encourage both recycling and the collection of recyclable materials.

One carrot that business groups would like to see is tax credits offered for investments in recycling facilities. Unless the law fosters this recycling infrastructure, it may do little to reduce the state's waste stream, says Bob Ruddick of the Associated Industries of Massachusetts. If many companies comply with standards by ordering packaging that contains recycled materials, the boost to recycling might be primarily out of state.

Even if the program succeeds in reducing waste, the cost to consumers could be high in the short run, says Kevin Dietly, a principal with Clayton Environmental Consultants in Boston. Companies would pass along to customers the costs of making their packaging comply with the law, he says.

And landfilling or incineration is still cheaper per ton than recycling, according to a study done last year by Mr. Dietly. But he notes that "landfills are getting more and more expensive to operate."

Some other points of contention:

(1) Where MassPIRG favors periodically tightening the standards with higher percentages of recycling rates for package content and materials, the business groups would have a commission review progress before raising the levels beyond 25 percent.

(2) In measuring the rates at which the state is recycling materials, MassPIRG would divide plastics into two categories, low-resin and high-resin, because the recycling processes differ. Christopher Flynn of the Massachusetts Food Association says the MassPIRG plan may drive out low-resin plastics such as polystyrene and polypropylene that are difficult to recycle. Ms. Perry says that MassPIRG wants to encourage businesses to switch to more environmentally friendly materials, but notes that exemptions c ould be granted when alternatives can't be found.

If Massachusetts politicians can't sort these issues out and pass a bill by early July, then the MassPIRG proposal will automatically go on the November ballot for voters to decide.

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