Congress Considers Law to Aid Recycling

Across the country taxpayers are paying a premium to recycle solid waste, due to low demand

JOSEPH CASAZZA, commissioner of Boston public works, says he supports the idea of recycling, but "right now recycling costs an awful lot of money."

For example, instead of receiving money for the newspapers collected here, Mr. Casazza says, "I'm paying $26 to $27 a ton to have people take it off my hands." That is on top of higher costs of collection.

The economics may change as more de-inking plants come on line to reprocess papers. But for now taxpayers across the country are paying a premium to recycle materials rather then dispose of them.

Proponents say recycling could become cost-effective if Washington passed laws to boost demand for paper, plastic, and metal. Several states have passed laws requiring newsprint to contain some recycled consumer waste, for example.

"We feel that recycling in this country needs a jump-start," says Carolyn Hartmann, staff attorney with the US Public Interest Research Group in Washington.

The Bush administration and many conservatives say such measures are not needed and there's no garbage crisis.

Early this month, the House Energy and Commerce Committee approved a bill to remodel the mammoth law that governs solid waste. But the bill came under sharp attack from both sides.

Congress has been trying for four years to reauthorize the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). Recycling is just one issue; others include regulation of interstate transport of waste and proposals that states develop solid-waste management plans under federal guidelines.

"The committee passed an absurdly weak version of the bill, which will have virtually no impact on America's waste problem," says Jim Maddy, executive director of the League of Conservation Voters, an environmental group.

"This RCRA bill is an unmitigated disaster," says Kenneth Chilton, deputy director of the Center for the Study of American Business at Washington University in St. Louis. He criticizes "the whole notion that ... governments should try to create markets." Mr. Chilton and the Bush administration argue that present law is adequate.

"Landfills and incinerators can already be regulated for their safety through the existing RCRA act," Chilton says. He says the free-market system will allow for new landfills and incinerators and "as much recycling as makes economic sense." He notes that landfill operators increasingly pay "host fees" to communities.

The House bill would require newspapers to use 35 percent recycled content by 1995 and create incentives for manufacturers to use recycled bottles, cans, and jars. Companies would choose among several options for the containers: making them reusable, reducing their bulk by 15 percent, or attaining recycling rates of 65 percent for aluminum, 40 percent for glass, and 25 percent for plastic.

Environmentalists complain that the bill lacks a nationwide system of bottle-deposit fees and other recycling measures. A year ago, Germany established an ambitious program whereby manufacturers are required to take back packaging from consumers and recycle most of it.

It appears unlikely that any RCRA bill will make it through Congress before year-end, observers say. Indeed, since the RCRA process is going so slowly, the Senate last week passed one key measure as a separate bill: to allow communities to ban out-of-state waste from their landfills.

The Senate bill represents a compromise on the issue, since some states had been pushing for the right to ban trash imports from a whole state. In two recent decisions, the Supreme Court ruled that state laws barring or charging higher fees on imported trash violated the Constitution's provision that Congress, not the states, regulates interstate commerce.

Although many lawmakers view the bill as important, environmentalists say it skirts the basic issue. "This interstate bill addresses the symptom of the garbage crisis rather than the crisis itself," says Daniel Weiss of the Sierra Club.

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