EPA SETS RECYCLING GOAL
By William Booth
January 5, 2000; Page A3
Even though many like Judy Tavares recycle,
Massachusetts fell short of its goal to reuse 46 percent of
all disposable waste annually by the year 2000. (AP)
LOS ANGELES - After years of rapid growth, the
nation's recycling rate appears to be leveling off as many
states and municipalities find it hard to achieve their most
ambitious goals for the diversion of garbage.
In 1980, about 10 percent of the municipal solid waste
stream was diverted to recycling. By 1990, the figure had
grown to about 16 percent.
>From 1996 to 1998, the last year for which numbers are
available, the rate climbed from 27.4 percent to 28.8
percent. The recycling effort is about evenly split
between individuals and businesses.
"The problem with increasing the recycling rate is that
we've gotten the most easy-to-get stuff already. We're
pulling out the corrugated boxes, the newspapers, the
aluminum cans. Much of the garbage that is left is either
hard to recycle or not worth the effort. Do you want to
recycle hot dog wrappers? Kitty litter? You could do it,
but at what cost?" said J. Winston Porter, president of the
Waste Policy Center and the EPA official who in 1988
set the national goal of recycling 25 percent of our
garbage, which was met in 1995.
Today, about 136 million people, or about 51 percent of
the U.S. population, have embraced curbside recycling
programs, transforming in a few decades a throwaway
postwar culture of profligate "wasters" into a population
that by and large has agreed to separate its cans, bottles
and newspapers before hauling out the trash.
Porter points out that recycling has its costs, "both in
dollars and in terms of the environmental costs. When
you recycle something, particularly something that is not
worth any money to anyone, you pay to recycle. You also
pay environmental costs, such as transportation, energy
consumption and some pollution."
On average nationally, it may cost about $50 to tip a ton
of garbage into a landfill, while recycling materials costs
about $100 a ton.
Porter and others think that the nation will reach a goal of
recycling in which about one-third of the garbage we
produce is diverted to other uses instead of ending up in a
The EPA has quietly set a goal of 35 percent by 2005,
when each person in the United States should generate no
more than 4.3 pounds of solid waste daily.
"The nation appears to be on track to meet that goal,"
according to the independent consultants Franklin
Associates of Prairie Village, Kan., which keeps track of
trash for the EPA. "But it will take continued
commitment from business, industry, government and the
public to do so."
Ten years ago, most states and many municipalities set
recycling goals. Many of the goals were ambitious, with a
dozen states hoping to recycle 50 percent of their
municipal solid waste by the year 2000. Most states have
failed to reach their goals, though many municipalities
have done so.
New York and California, two of the nation's biggest
producers of garbage, set the bar at 50 percent by 2000,
and neither will make it. California has the strictest
requirements written into law, allowing slackers to be
fined as much as $10,000 a day. But so far, no California
cities have been fined, and they may never be because
extensions may be granted out until the year 2006.
An Associated Press review of reports filed to the
California Integrated Waste Management Board found
that of 431 jurisdictions that reported to the state, only
about 25 percent had met the 50 percent goal by 1998, the
last year on record.
"We are making incredible strides in California, but we
are not there yet," said Steven Jones, a member of the
Integrated Waste Management Board.
Jones, however, is not ready to support a rollback of the
goal. "We've built the infrastructure to do it. Businesses
have embraced it and its good for their bottom line. I
think we'll get there."
Mark Murray, executive director of the trash watchdog
group Californians Against Waste, says that recycling has
produced "this phenomenal transformation" of society in
a very short time.
"In California, hundreds of cities are at or near 50 percent
recycling, and these are not just the places you'd expect,
like Berkeley, Arcata or Davis, but San Jose, Los Angeles
and San Diego," Murray said. "We've proven that it can
There does appear to be some deep desire among many
citizens to support recycling and to actually do it
themselves, to pluck their cans and bottles from the waste
stream and place them in their color-coded plastic
curbside receptacles for weekly pickup.
Many trash experts believe the reason for the urge to
recycle is not regulators pawing through trash and
threatening fines, but that for many ordinary Americans
recycling seems to be a tangible thing they can do to help
There appears to be a deeply embedded uneasiness in our
culture about throwing away junk that can be reused.
Perhaps, in part, it is guilt about consumption. Perhaps it
also feels unnatural. Mother Nature doesn't throw stuff
away. Dead trees, birds, beetles and elephants are pretty
quickly recycled by the system.
Many people may feel they cannot do much about global
warming or the rain forests, but they do know they can
put an aluminum can in the recycling bin, Murray said,
"and I am hard pressed to think of any sort of resource
conservation that has such a tangible effect."
The recycling craze really began in this country in 1987,
when a garbage barge named the Mobro 4000 began
wandering around the oceans looking for a place to dump
a load of Long Island trash. The news media and
environmentalists quickly concluded that there was a
shortage of landfill space and that the answer was to
divert garbage from burial in holes in the ground and
In retrospect, however, the "landfill crisis" appears to
have been regional, and somewhat overblown. Land for
municipal dumps is scarce around some cities in the
Northeast, but plentiful elsewhere.
While there were about 18,000 landfills in 1975, there are
about 2,300 today. Many are "superdumps," taking in
more than 500 tons of waste a day. A lot of garbage today
travels several hundred miles to reach its final resting
What will the future of recycling hold?
It is clear that many municipalities will reach the EPA's
35 percent goal, and that real dedication will push others
to 50 percent - and beyond. Some advocates, in fact, such
as the Grassroots Recycling Network based in Athens,
Ga., have begun to talk about "zero waste."
But other experts, such as Porter, the former EPA official,
are skeptical. "I think its fairly remarkable what we've
done," he said. "But the problem with shooting too high
may be that it discourages people. You know, for some
people, recycling is their whole life. But I don't know that
many people like that." ###
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