Magazine article Management Review

Trash Makes a Splash in Washington

Magazine article Management Review

Trash Makes a Splash in Washington

Article excerpt

Congress is spending a lot of time talking trash. Last year, clean air was the focal point of Capitol Hill's environmental agenda. This year it's garbage--better known as municipal solid waste, in polite policy circles--and how best to reduce the amount of it Americans produce each year.

As with most environmental causes Capitol Hill decides to take on, the solid waste issue has turned into a political hot potato. Politicians are worried about keeping environmentally sensitive voters happy. Meanwhile, the corporate community, which knows green is good for business, is concerned that overly ambitious and restrictive rule making could tie its hands--and hurt profits--while still not solving a problem almost everyone agrees needs addressing.

A flash point for this year's debate is a drive by key congressional leaders to legislate the first-ever mandatory federal recycling laws requiring companies to "source reduce" the amount of original material they use in packages, while also forcing them to use more recyclable and recycled materials to wrap and box products. Additionally, moves are being made to make individual firms--not local government--the primary "responsible entity" for recycling goods by requiring that they either downsize packages or buy back increasing amounts of their used packaging waste after it has been recycled.

The vehicle for this debate is the upcoming reauthorization of the country's primary solid waste disposal law, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). As a spokesperson for the Natural Resources Defense Council rather whimsically put it, "If a company puts something in something and sells it, we want a law that says they have to use less and recycle more of that something it's in."


The political spotlight is on packaging because it is visible. Add the simple fact that many local governments are running out of places to dump the growing amount of trash people bag for curbside pickup every day. Nationwide, consumers and businesses produce some 180 million tons of solid waste annually. By decade's end, the trash total will jump to an estimated 216 million tons. Meanwhile, existing conventional landfills--currently the most common way cities dispose of waste--are filling up. Nine years from now nearly 70 percent of the landfills operating just a couple years ago will be closed, according to federal estimates.

Few communities want to be the home of a new dump, so adding more landfills seems to be out of the question. This "not in my backyard" attitude also applies to incinerators. Private and municipal solid waste incinerators are so unpopular that local politicos have coined a shorthand to describe their position: NIMTOO, Not In My Term Of Office. Yet, the garbage has to go somewhere. "Let's face it," argues Representative Al Swift (D-Wash.), "if we don't act soon to reverse this tide, we'll be drowning in our own waste."

This leaves recycling as the only politically correct answer to the solid waste crisis, say many state and federal officials. Locally, more than 40 states now have some kind of recycling law. Some 3,000 communities have instituted recycling programs. Nationally, an estimated 20 percent of the solid waste stream is now being recycled. Some environmental groups contend it is theoretically possible to increase this recycled rate to 80 percent.

Despite the "feel good" factor and the ecologically popular appeal of recycling, others say it isn't a magic cure for the solid waste crisis, pointing out that truly effective recycling programs are harder to institute and more expensive to run than previously thought.

"Some environmental activists say communities should be forced to meet a mandatory minimum 50 percent recycling rate," says Randall Franke, a member of the Marion County, Ore., board of commissioners, which runs one of the country's most successful recycling programs. …

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