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[GreenYes] Washington Post: "Is Recycling Being Canned?"
Washington Post, Sunday Sept 22, 2002, front page of Business Section
Is Recycling Being Canned?
By Martha McNeil Hamilton
Fifteen years after recycling entered the use-and-toss consciousness of the
average American consumer, the record of participation has been pretty
good. Today, more than 30 percent of the nation's waste is recycled, up
from about 10 percent in 1987.
But complacency and economics are combining to threaten continued
progress in reusing what we would otherwise throw away. For the first time
in many years, the number of aluminum cans tossed into the trash last year
exceeded the number separated and carted off for recycling. The recycling
of paper and plastic never reached the 50 percent-plus levels that aluminum
did, and they remain behind by 10 to 20 percentage points.
"To some extent recycling is being undone by its very success," said
Allen Hershkowitz, a scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
"Success" is relative, of course. When recycling first hit the
mainstream, the nation seemed to be facing a garbage crisis. Not only were
the alley trash cans filled to overflowing, but so, too, were the nation's
landfills. Television cameras rolled as a barge loaded with trash from Long
Island sailed down the East Coast, turned away at every port as it looked
for a place to dump its cargo.
The situation has improved dramatically since then, as many Americans
changed their habits and set up separate containers for their recyclable
wastes. By 1998, there were 9,000 curbside pickup programs and 12,000
drop-off centers nationwide, according to the Environmental Protection
Agency. Safer landfills have been built, including "megafields" in
Virginia, Pennsylvania and other states that take out-of-state garbage as
well as their local waste.
But now that recycling is mainstream -- no longer a hip, politically
correct ethos -- its momentum is faltering. New York City, facing budget
pressures, recently suspended its plastic-recycling program for a year and
its glass-recycling program for two years. If you want to recycle in New
York these days, you are limited to paper and aluminum. Denver and Dallas
have been also been battling over whether to reduce their recycling
programs to help balance their budgets. It's not that a recycling program
necessarily costs more than garbage collection, according the National
Recycling Coalition, but garbage collection is mandated by law, while
recycling often is not.
Even many of the cities that are still enforcing mandatory recycling at
homes don't have programs or regulations governing recycling at office
buildings, bars, restaurants, schools or stadiums. As a result, many of
those cans go into the trash, said Kate Krebs, executive director of the
National Recycling Coalition, whose membership includes state and local
recycling coordinators as well as manufacturing and recycling companies.
Some cities have regulations that require companies to have bins or
containers for recycling, and others have economic incentives for companies
to reduce the amount of trash they generate. But there isn't much
enforcement of recycling away from home, she said.
The recent economic boom may be another factor in the decline in aluminum
recycling. Given that the unemployment rate has been below 5 percent for
five years, can scavenging has declined, said several industry and
environmental officials. There are fewer places to resell collected cans
than there were a few years ago, according to Craig Covert, market
development manager at Alcoa's Rigid Packaging division.
"In the 1990s there used to be 10,000 places to sell your cans --
different scrap dealers and recycling centers," he said. "It might be half
of that now."
Moreover, the value of each scavenged can has declined, given that most
cans are lighter today than in the past. The price for a pound of used
beverage cans has stayed within a 45-to-55-cent range since 1980 -- or
relatively flat, according to a report by the Container Recycling
Institute, a foundation-funded organization that promotes recycling. So
inflation has eroded the gains to can sellers.
In the 10 states that require deposits on containers, the deposit is a
nickel or less in all but one. That's the same rate that was set when
Oregon became the first state to require a deposit in 1971, the recycling
institute noted, when a nickel was worth considerably more than today.
(Even though a nickel isn't much, recycling rates remain higher in the
states that require a deposit. Aluminum-can recycling rates are highest in
Michigan, which requires a 10-cent deposit.)
One other factor that may contribute to recycling becoming an
afterthought is the design of garbage cans and recycling bins. Recycling
companies speculate that when consumers run out of space in their little
recycling bins, the rest of the recyclables go into their super-sized trash
Through the design of the collection containers, "we're telling the
consumer to throw away 78 gallons and recycle 16 gallons," said the
Aluminum Association's Robin King.
Not everything that goes into the recycling bin has the same value.
"Aluminum is the biggest revenue maker," said Tom Kusterer, project
manager for Montgomery County's recycling center. Recyclers that pay about
a penny a can for aluminum often pay nothing at all for plastic or glass.
But even so, 50.7 billion aluminum cans ended up in the trash last year
instead of being recycled, according to a report by the Container Recycling
Institute. That didn't leave the recycling bins empty: Because of the huge
number of cans sold, there were still about 50 billion cans recycled.
What makes the wasting trend so puzzling, say aluminum producers and
environmentalists, is that the economics of recycling aluminum are so
favorable. The cost of energy needed to refine bauxite into aluminum is
high, but once the aluminum exists it can be used again and again with no
deterioration. And recycling uses only 5 percent of the energy required to
create aluminum the first time.
"The aluminum can is the most recycled product out there in the waste
stream, and it is by far the most valuable," said Dennis B. Crooker,
president of Alcoa Recycling Co., which collects and processes used
aluminum beverage and food cans. "My concern is that the consumer appears
not to be taking that into consideration."
Recycling of aluminum cans peaked in 1992. According to Jennifer Gitlitz,
who wrote the report for the recycling institute, 65 percent of the cans
sold that year were recycled. Last year, according to the group, the
percentage fell to 49.2 percent. Figures from the Aluminum Association also
show a decline, although their recycling percentages are higher. The trade
association shows recycling falling from a high of 67.9 percent in 1992 to
55.4 percent last year.
"The question is: Are we going to be able to reverse this decline?" said
the recycling institute's executive director, Pat Franklin.
"We want to recycle more cans," said Brenda Pulley, vice president for
corporate communications at Alcan Aluminum Co., which recycles about 40
percent of all the cans recycled in the United States. "But there doesn't
seem to be any silver bullet" that can reverse the trend, she said.
Not all the aluminum recycling news is bad. Aluminum scrap generated in
manufacturing is still nearly completely recycled, as is aluminum from
The aluminum used in U.S. manufacturing comes from three major sources:
primary production from virgin materials, imports and scrap. Each source
accounts for about a third of the supply. About half of the scrap is what
the industry refers to as "new" scrap -- bits and pieces that fall off when
cars and airplane parts are being manufactured. Virtually all of that scrap
is recycled back into the same type of manufacturing.
The rest of the scrap is post-consumer scrap -- those compacted blocks of
wrecked cars, bits and pieces from construction, and beer, juice and soda
cans. Cans account for about 45 to 50 percent of the total, autos about
40 percent, and the balance comes from those odds and ends, according to
Nick Adams of the Aluminum Association's recycling division. Almost all of
the aluminum from sources other than cans is recycled, he said. "The only
area where there's perhaps a problem with recycling is the packaging area,
which is handled by the consumer in small quantities," he said.
Environmentalists and the aluminum industry hope to reverse that, but the
solutions under discussion are as complex as the causes of the decline in
recycling. One proposed solution is to make deposits on containers
mandatory nationwide. In the meantime, environmentalists and the recycling
industry are trying to persuade more venues where beverages are consumed
away from home to set up recycling programs.
Recycling aluminum may not offset the costs of municipal recycling as
much as it once did, but that shouldn't be a factor in deciding whether to
keep those programs running, said the National Recycling Coalition's Krebs.
"We don't expect our garbage services to make us money. Expecting recycling
programs to generate enough revenue to offset costs is inappropriate."
Recycling has other benefits, supporters say, including reducing energy
consumption, emissions and other environmental damage. And it can help
avoid a landfill crisis in the future.
"Most states have less than 20 years of landfill capacity at this time,"
said Krebs. "And who wants to live next door to a landfill?"
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