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Collection: The First Step
Recovery rates have been a success
by Bruce R. Weddle
n 1990, the United States generated
over 195 million tons of municipal solid waste, approximately 4.3 pounds per person per day. This exceeds the generation rate in every other industrialized nation. The good news is that Americans recognize the problems associated with municipal solid waste and are responding by separating and collecting many types of material for recycling.
Just take a look around. Supermarkets are accepting used plastic grocery bags for recycling, employees are collecting office paper at the workplace, local gas stations are taking used oil back from their customers, and schools are recycling everything from notebook paper to plastic food trays. Where once we may have been content to return aluminum cans to central collection centers, or contribute the occasional stack of newspapers to a paper drive, materials of all kinds are finding their way into a variety of public and private collection programs.
Of course, separating and collecting recyclable goods is just the beginning; recycling isn't complete until the materials have been reprocessed, marketed, and reused. Nonetheless, progress has been substantial over the
last several years as the foundations of a comprehensive, nationwide recycling system are being laid. In 1990, we recovered 17 percent of our waste stream for recycling and composting, compared to just 10 percent in 1985. This means that in 1990, because of our higher generation rate, we recovered over 33 million tons of materials, which is more than twice the 16 million tons recovered in 1986.
While federal, state, and local governments, industry, and private organizations have all contributed to the rapid growth in the collection of recyclable materials, the real heroes are ordinary citizens. Individuals of all ages are not only collecting more materials for recycling, but they're volunteering at collection sites, promoting programs, and more. Perhaps we as a nation have embraced recycling because it allows us as individuals to do something that has an immediate and measurable impact on a problem to which we all contribute. Considering the diversity and complexity of today's environmental challenges, separating recyclables from our trash reminds us that we really can make a difference.
In many areas of the country, municipal governments have led the way. Encouraged by the support of local civic groups, volunteer recycling committees, and other concerned citizens, these communities have designed and implemented recycling programs that reduced their reliance on landfills and incinerators and provided considerable savings in tipping or dumping-fees. These
communities also earned revenues from the sale of recyclable materials that helped offset the cost of the recycling program.
Community recycling programs are typically organized around curbside or dropoff collections. In a curbside program, local haulers or recycling companies pick up sorted or mixed recyclable materials directly from residents. Characteristically, curbside programs result in a high participation rate, successfully diverting a significant percentage of the waste stream. The number of curbside collection programs has quadrupled since 1988; today, some 65 million Americans are served by these programs. Lexington, Massachusetts, for example, established its curbside recycling program in 1988, distributing recycling bins to area residents to be filled with mixed recyclables and placed at the curb for collection by a private contractor. The city reported in 1991 that over 80 percent of its residents participated, diverting 30 percent of the city's waste stream.
Dropoff collection programs require the individuals to bring their separated materials to a central site. These programs range in scope from newspaper collections sponsored by scouting organizations to industry-sponsored buy-back projects to fully staffed multi-material collection centers. Operating dropoff sites is less expensive than managing curbside collection programs, though lower participation and collection rates usually result. In some communities, vending machines are being used for
(Weddle is Director of EPA's Municipal and Industrial Solid Waste Division.)
consumer convenience. Individuals simply deposit their aluminum and plastic beverage containers into the machines and receive cash in return.
To encourage recycling by residents, some communities are using economic incentives, such as “variable rate" programs in which residents are billed for waste collection based on the weight or volume of waste they place at the curb for disposal. Material set out for recycling is collected without charge. One of the most successful programs began in Seattle, Washington, in the early 1980s. The program significantly increased the amount of material diverted from the waste stream. In 1991, approximately 40 percent of the city's waste (about 50,000 tons of material) was collected for recycling
To learn more about such successful
collection efforts, EPA is funding a cities discovered in 1991 that each study by the Institute for Local
used different methods to compile and Self-Reliance, a nonprofit research and calculate recycling and participation educational group dedicated to
rates. They are now working to supporting independent communities. develop uniform measurement The institute is developing case
methods to enable them to gauge the studies on 30 community-based
success of their efforts more recycling programs. It is compiling and accurately. Because of low landfill comparing such data as costs,
costs and high transportation costs, participation levels, and recovery rates. caused by long distances to markets for The idea is to provide reliable
their collected recyclables, these cities information that other communities also face special recycling challenges, can use to plan for and evaluate their which they are working to overcome. own programs. The information will be Additionally, the coalition is working made available in a three-volume
cooperatively to market recyclables, report this fall.
thereby ensuring a steady supply of Regional approaches are also being materials on which recycling undertaken. A coalition of 20
industries can rely. This will make the southwestern cities created the
recovered materials more valuable and Southwest Public Recycling
easier to sell. Association, which is examining
State governments have been collection and marketing issues. The instrumental in providing a boost for
recycling; today, virtually every state in the country has enacted some type of recycling legislation. In 1986, Rhode Island instituted the country's first state-wide regulations mandating recycling, requiring the participation of both households and businesses. The state initially concentrated on residential collection. A list of materials to be collected from the curb was compiled, and residents were asked to separate these materials from their household waste. The participation rate by households reached 80 percent this year. Businesses were asked to prepare recycling plans, focusing their efforts on those materials that appear in the largest quantities in their waste stream. To date, over 90 percent of the companies have submitted their plans and report an average reduction in the amount of waste requiring disposal of 20 percent. In Pennsylvania, where over two million residents in 200
communities are participating in community recycling programs, a state recycling program is being developed that will eventually involve over eight million of its citizens.
The federal government has introduced a large-scale recycling effort, In 1991, President Bush signed an Executive Order requiring, among other things, that every federal agency and department formulate a plan to recycle usable materials, from paper and plastic to used oil and automobile tires. Through this effort, the federal government will soon become one of the largest recyclers in the world. The General Services Administration is helping many federal agencies get their programs off the ground and has established collection programs in federally owned office buildings.
EPA launched its own recycling program in 1975. Program organizers educate employees about recycling, track the amounts and types of waste
diverted, and direct purchasing decisions toward products with recycled content. While collection efforts were initially focused on high-grade white office paper, the program now includes newsprint, mixed waste paper, aluminum cans, and glass bottles. Last year, EPA diverted over 2,400 tons of recyclables from its waste stream.
Numerous interagency recycling partnerships have been established as well. Just this year the U.S. Postal Service joined forces with EPA to design an educational poster on recycling that will be displayed in post offices across the nation. The Postal Service itself has implemented its own comprehensive recycling program, collecting such diverse materials as paper and cardboard from its offices and waste oil, lead-acid batteries, and antifreeze from its vehicle maintenance operations. In 1990, the Department of the Interior, along with Dow Chemical and Huntsman Chemical, formed a partnership to sponsor major recycling programs for glass, aluminum, and plastics in several national parks.
Another cross-agency effort is helping to provide guidance to manufacturers and consumers on the use of marketing claims like "recycled" and "recyclable." Many consumers want to purchase products that have recycled content or other environmental attributes but have been confused by the inconsistent and sometimes misleading use of environmental marketing claims.
To address these issues, EPA initiated an Interagency Task Force with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the U.S. Office of Consumer Affairs to develop a comprehensive national response to the problems posed by the inconsistent use of claims. A major goal of the task force is to prepare consistent national guidelines for the use of environmental claims. On July 28, the FTC made a
major contribution to this goal by not recycling, you're throwing it all working to increase participation by announcing the release of voluntary away,” generated over 120,000 calls residents in local recycling programs. industry guidelines. EPA was pleased from people requesting more
Partnerships between industry and to assist the FTC by providing
information. The follow-up campaign environmental groups have been technical input to the guidelines. They targeted nonrecyclers, conveying a especially successful at increasing the will help provide consumers with message that recycling not only lets
amount of waste being collected for reliable information, discouraging the individuals make a difference, but that recycling. In 1990, EDF and the use of vague claims like "recyclable it's easy. Other groups, such as the McDonald's Corporation formed a task where facilities exist” and encouraging
force to study how waste could be specific claims like "contains 50
effectively reduced and recycled in the percent recycled material." (See box on The foundations of a
company's franchises. Among the page 10.)
actions McDonald's decided to comprehensive, nationwide Private groups, from national
implement was collecting corrugated environmental organizations to local
recycling system are being
boxes (which comprise over one-third civic groups, have also done their part
of its waste) for recycling. Facts about to mobilize recycling in the nation.
the company's efforts also are printed The Environmental Defense Fund
on bags and posters to help promote (EDF), working with the Advertising Natural Resources Defense Council,
recycling among the restaurant's many Council, launched a pair of nationwide have initiated research projects to
customers. advertising campaigns in 1988 and quantify the effectiveness of recycling, Schools also have been active in the 1990 to stimulate people's interest in and many community organizations, recycling arena. From kindergarten to recycling. The first recycling
such as the League of Women Voters college, students are championing campaign, using the slogan "If you're and Keep America Beautiful, are
recycling and taking the message
hundreds of children from Regional Refuse Breakdown
kindergarten through the sixth grade Number of curbside recycling programs vs. number of landfills by U.S. region
have been sworn in as “Recycling
Rangers." Their job: to "tell my family 1,379
and friends why recycling is a good
thing to do and help them to recycle." 1,374
At the University of Wisconsin-Stevens
New England Point, students and faculty instituted a
collection program for paper,
aluminum and other metals, and yard 569
trimmings. The program recovered
almost 45 percent of the university's West
waste stream in the first full year of
The tremendous surge in collection
programs in recent years reflects a Midwest
growing concern with solid waste • Also includes
management in the United States. It Alaska and Hawaii
also demonstrates a concerted effort by Curbside Recycling Programs
numerous individuals to take
responsibility for the waste they Landfills
generate. This willingness to make
changes in our lifestyles is a necessary Source. BoCycle Magazina
first step toward developing even more innovative solutions in the years to
ecycling's universally recognized
symbol is truly representative of this thriving environmental industry. The symbol's chasing arrows perfectly connote the sequential, full circle nature of materials recovery and use.
As a beginning, residents, businesses, and institutions must prepare discards for recycling collection. These materials must then be sorted, processed, and transported. Mills and factories must convert these recovered commodities into new goods and products for sale to and use by consumers, thus rounding out the circle. It is important to note that the recycling logo has three equally sized arrows. Should any of the activities involved fall behind their counterparts, the resulting imbalance will cause the system to falter.
This article outlines the activities involved under the second arrow: the conversion of collected materials into commodities desired by industry here and abroad. In a sense, this article is about that quiet and unknown element of recycling—the processor.
As well, this article describes a growing industry, an industry that operates in nearly every American town and city. In the United States, there are nearly 2,000 sites where recovered paper is received, sorted, and packed for shipment to paper and paperboard mills. Last year, these processors handled over 30 million tons of recyclable fiber.
More than 5,000 facilities in the United States process scrap metals before the material is sent to mills and foundries. Over 100 processing locations turn glass bottles into cullet-small bits of glass that can be easily melted for use by container manufacturers. Similarly, some 300 scrap plastic processors now operate in
In 1991, recycling processors handled more than 75 million tons of post-consumer scrap materials.
(Powell is Editor-in-Chief of Resource Recycling Magazine based in Portland, Oregon.)