12:02 PM ET 07/23/00
Recycling Commitment May Be Fading
By MICHAEL GORMLEY=
Associated Press Writer=
AMSTERDAM, N.Y. (AP) _ For Mayor John M. Duchessi Jr., the high
cost of recycling was not as much a concern as the surprising
notion that recyclables were being dumped in landfills and
incinerators like trash.
In response, Duchessi took a bold stand Jan. 1 by dropping his
city's recycling program in defiance of a state lawsuit.
It took six months of intense pressure from the state attorney
general and the glare of a national media spotlight for the city to
reinstitute its recycling program, albeit reluctantly. Nonetheless,
Amsterdam seems to have made its point: The nation's commitment to
recycling has waned.
Cash-strapped cities, small and large, have been grumbling for
years about mandatory curbside sorting. They complain about rising
costs while market prices drop and a growing concern that
recyclables are being dumped in landfills and incinerators like
Amsterdam, a city of 19,000 located 30 miles northwest of
Albany, was the first city in New York, and possibly the nation, to
abandon recycling which was made mandatory statewide in 1988.
By dropping its $180,000 recycling program, Duchessi said his
city was simply admitting reality _ it couldn't be sure anything
was being recycled.
``People don't like to wash and sort their recyclables only to
see them dumped in the garbage truck,'' Duchessi said. ``My fear is
that people would develop a disdain for recycling.''
``I'm not against recycling _ as long as it's recycling,'' he
State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer acknowledges that
recyclables are often carefully cleaned, bundled and sorted only to
get mixed in with garbage. He plans to introduce legislation this
year that would change that.
But Spitzer had no intentions of allowing Amsterdam to trash a
program that has changed the habits of most Americans since the
first Earth Day three decades ago. His staff held closed-door
meetings with city officials before his office filed a lawsuit in
early June, not to exact fines, but to restore recycling.
``Amsterdam is the only municipality that turned its back on
recycling,'' said Marc Violette, spokesman for Spitzer. ``We don't
want other municipalities to violate the law.''
But there have been reports, at least anecdotal, that
increasingly the nation's recyclables are quietly ending up in
landfills in recent years.
Brian Taylor, editor of the industry magazine Recycling Today,
said no one knows how much recyclable material is landfilled, but
he believes it is a small percentage.
Sponsors of a recycling bill signed into New York law only last
week said they have been concerned by a slight reduction in
recycling noted in 1998 by the state Department of Environmental
Conservation. It was the first time in a decade that the tonnage of
recyclables had decreased from the previous year.
Neal Feldman of the Washington-based research Institute for
Local Self-Reliance, said Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Washington and
other large cities have seriously considered cutting back
A public backlash, however, quickly restored the programs.
Additionally, most often the cost of recycling is buried in
municipal budgets, said Jerry Taylor, director of natural resource
studies for the Cato Institute, a research center in Washington.
``You don't get much at the ballot box to say you're dismantling
recycling, and it doesn't matter if it works.''
In Amsterdam, the heavily pressured city council voted 3-2 in
late June to sign a contract to resume recycling. But its point was
A 1996 state survey had found 68 percent of municipalities
received complaints that recyclables were being trashed. With
Amsterdam's defiance, the state seemed to be left little choice but
to focus its attention on recycling.
``In many cases, those allegations are confirmed,'' Violette
Judith Enck, an environmental director with the attorney
general's office, said a resident called her office because he saw
the recycling hauler dump sorted material into the garbage truck.
The man said he couldn't get his town supervisor or a state agency
to even call the hauler, Enck said.
``It's clear to us there's widespread public support (in
households) for recycling. It's just become second nature,'' she
said. ``We concede that communities often don't make money (from
recycling), but there are other economic benefits and, besides,
it's the law.''
One of the problems with this local government recycling malaise
is that in the early and mid-1990s there was a lot of money for
recycling,'' Enck said.
But a demand for recycled paper and cardboard in the Pacific has
eased and prices have fluctuated, particularly in Washington state.
Cardboard had sold to Pacific Rim markets for $90 a ton in 1996,
but dropped to $20 a ton by early 1997. The price rebounded to $65
a ton until roughly a month or two ago, then dropped again to $45 a
ton, said Kip Eagles, recycling survey coordinator.
``The bottom just fell out of the cardboard market,'' he said.
However, Enck insists that when governments consider the cost of
precious landfill space, recycling pays.
State figures showing a steady rise in recycling, which Enck
said appears to be leveling off, are also suspect. When mandatory
recycling began in New York, local governments did most of the
collecting. Now the work is often contracted and those figures can
reflect what is left at the curbs, not what is left at recycling
plants for reuse.
Still, New York can be proud of its recycling effort, which
increased from claiming 3 percent of the waste stream in 1987 to 42
percent in 1998, one of the best marks nationwide.
In Amsterdam, which operates on a $17.05 million budget, the new
recycling contract that will resume the program in August will cost
almost $170,000 and the city may have to cancel its annual clean-up
day in the fall to make up the cost. A new city law includes
penalties for people and businesses that send recyclables to
The city can also expect help: New York Gov. George Pataki
signed into law a bill making between $2 million and $5 million
available annually through the Environmental Protection Fund for
recycling education programs and local recycling coordinators. The
program requires localities to pay half of the costs to get
matching state money.
For the first time, according to David Higby of Environmental
Advocates, the law will make a permanent source of money available
to localities that want to hire municipal recycling coordinators.
Duchessi, meanwhile, has no regrets for his city's unorthodox
``The fight has been worth it,'' he said. ``The public has shown
it is willing to pay for curbside recycling _ realizing it's not
revenue-neutral. In addition, I think we helped bring attention to
the fact that recycling has changed.''
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