Some 140 million Americans have the recycling habit. They dutifully put out their bins each week, or take their cans, bottles, and stacks of paper to a recycling center.
But while participation rates are good, reducing the mountains of waste isn't easy. The percentage of waste being recycled hasn't moved much recently, peaking at about 30 percent in 2000. And a key recyclable, aluminum cans, are being reused at a lower rate than 10 years ago.
Recycling is a prime way to prevent pollution from oozing out of landfills. But civic-mindedness is only one force at work here. There's also economics and a quest for convenience.
The market price for recyclable commodities inevitably affects the vigor of efforts to collect them. A pound of aluminum scrap is now 20 cents, down from 60 cents. Even so, it's still a valuable item. New York City recently stopped recycling glass and plastics because it was costing the budget-pinched city more to do the hauling and sorting than it could get from selling the material.
A lack of convenience can also slow recycling. While curbside pickup exists in many communities, it often serves individual homes and not apartments. Larger cities face a challenge of making recycling services easily available to multifamily dwellings.
But a basic challenge remains convincing individuals to separate their trash and use whatever recycling program is at hand. Simplified approaches can help. Rhode Island has a statewide policy of dividing recyclables into two categories: paper and everything else. The final sorting is done at a central facility.
The broadest solution is constant public education about the importance of recycling and how to do it.
Despite slow progress, recycling remains a focal point of local activism and innovation. Neighborhood groups are doing a lot to keep programs vital. Communities are trying various ideas, such as the "pay as you throw" approach that charges per bag of trash, thus creating a financial incentive to throw out less; recyclables are handled free of charge. Of course, it may also push some people to toss trash on roadsides to avoid paying.
Recycling is a project that all citizens can work on together. Working toward that ideal is well worth the considerable effort.