Growing Pains: Recycling Is Maturing, and Facing New Challenges

Article excerpt

When Ohio University recycling manager Ed Newman wants to see how the campus is recycling he goes right to the heart of the matter--into the dumpster. Though numbers show that students and faculty are recycling a decent 25 to 30 percent of residence and dining hall trash, Newman finds a different story when he goes on a "dumpster dive" into one of the university containers. On his last dive, he found that 65 to 70 percent of the dumpster's contents were recyclable. While recycling numbers on campus are holding steady, the amount of reusable or recyclable materials still being discarded is growing.

Since the first recycling drop-off-centers were established in 1970, community recycling programs have expanded to more than 9,000 curbside programs nationwide. In major U.S. cities, recycling accounts for as much as 50 to 60 percent of the municipal solid waste stream--a number that critics 10 years ago said could not be reached. Such cities as Portland (Oregon), Seattle, Chicago and San lose showcase recycling success stories and give advocates hope.

"If you don't recycle you can't consider yourself an environmentalist," says Neil Seldman, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance. But while recycling has become established in some cities, the national recycling rate has stagnated at 30 percent since the 1990s. With tough economic times, many recycling programs are among the first on the chopping block--often saved by community outcries. Further opposition to recycling comes from the virgin materials industries, including timber and mining, from the waste-hauling industry and other anti-recycling political and corporate groups.

Recycling is also confusing for consumers, according to a study presented at the National Recycling Coalition (NRC) Congress last year by advertising agency DDB Bass & Howes. "We've all been so focused on creating this business that we've not done a good job of listening to customers--Americans at home and at work who want to recycle," says Kate Kreb, executive director of NRC.

In particular, the movement needs to improve education, Kreb says. NRC is working to design standard recycling icons like the familiar circling arrows that will be instant recognizable.

NRC also is working to dispel many of the myths associated with recycling, such as the idea that it costs more than it can contribute to the economy. In fact, according to an NRC study, recycling is a strong business, larger than either the mining or waste industries in the United States, with jobs that pay more than manufacturing. Another common myth--that materials do not get recycled even when put in the right bins--developed from a few exaggerated incidents.

Whether because of these myths or other factors, the amount of traditional solid waste materials such as plastic and aluminum beverage containers being recycled has decreased. According to the National Association of PET Container Resources, the PET plastic bottle recycling rate dropped from 39.7 percent in 1995 to 19.9 percent in 2002. Aluminum can recycling dropped to 49.2 percent--its lowest rate since 1980, according to the Container Recycling Institute.

One of the main causes of this decrease is the enormous growth of container production, says CRI research director Jenny Gitlitz. PET sales have skyrocketed as the bottled water industry has exploded (see "Message in a Bottle," cover story, September/October 2003). Curbside programs are not convenient for the increasing numbers of people consuming these beverages away from home. And current recycling systems cannot hope to match the sheer numbers of products being produced.

Bottle bills, which shift the burden of responsibility for beverage waste from the taxpayer to the producer by forcing manufacturers to design container refund systems of 2. …