WITH curbside collection of recyclable materials now available to 70 million Americans, a critical question is how to "close the loop," how to build demand for recovered plastic, glass, and paper.
On Tuesday, 25 corporations in diverse lines of business announced what could become part of the answer to this dilemma: the creation of a Buy Recycled Business Alliance "committed to increasing the procurement of products with recycled content."
The companies, which include McDonald's, BankAmerica, and Bell Atlantic, say that together they purchased $2.7 billion worth of recycled products last year. In addition, several of the firms, such as James River Corporation and the DuPont Company, sell products made with recycled content. The newly formed alliance hopes to add 5,000 more member businesses in the next two years.
Some proponents of recycling say this voluntary approach will not "close the loop" fast enough, and are urging state or federal regulation.
Here in Massachusetts, for example, the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group is pushing an initiative on the November ballot to set up packaging standards for all products sold in the state. Companies could comply in several ways: by reducing the volume of their packaging, making it reusable or recyclable, or making it with recycled content.
Other experts say that, since manufacturers produce goods for national or regional distribution, such standards would only be workable on a national level.
"You can't do it on a state-by-state basis," says Carl Hursh, recycling chief for Pennsylvania's Bureau of Waste Management.
Some national incentives for use of recycled materials are included in a bill that may pass Congress later this year or next year - the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.
But the Bush administration and many businesses say such regulations are unnecessary and overbearing.
"We're doing it without mandates," says Richard Davis, an official with James River, a paper company. He says the message of the business alliance is, "Give us the time to show you we can do it voluntarily."
James River has spent $300 million over the last three years adding or retrofitting facilities to use recovered paper in products ranging from tissues to cardboard. At American Airlines, another member of the alliance, all cocktail napkins, toilet paper, and paper towels are made with recycled content, as are its annual report and newspaper.
The alliance says many recycled products are competitively priced with those made of virgin materials. Faber Castell Corporation, for example, recently introduced a pencil made of reprocessed paper that sells for 89 cents a dozen, versus 99 cents for those made with virgin wood.
"Most products will be extremely cost-competitive," says Peter Grogan, president of the nonprofit National Recycling Coalition, which coordinated the formation of the business alliance. The "Buy Recycled" campaign was announced at the NRC's annual meeting in Boston.
Separate from the business alliance, federal government agencies are developing plans to purchase recycled goods. The move, ordered by President Bush last October, aims to stimulate demand for recycled goods.
Chaz Miller, recycling manager at the National Solid Wastes Management Association, says state laws requiring newspapers to use a certain percentage of recycled newsprint "have been very effective." Twenty-four mills are producing recycled newprint in North America, up from 10 mills two years ago.
If demand for recycled materials improves, the cost of recycling programs to cities may drop.
A curbside pickup program typically costs cities anywhere from $70 per ton to well over $100, Mr. Miller says. This is often more than landfilling. Some of the cost - on average $25 per ton - goes to pay reprocessing facilities, which do not break even by reselling the materials alone.