Recycling: Challenge to Local Government By: Neal R. Peirce

Neal R. Peirce

September 10, 1990

WASHINGTON. — BURIED AND BURNED garbage means energy is being wasted. That, in turn, means a weaker America, less prepared to face the new era of soaring energy costs and shortages signaled by the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

Recycling Americans' vast waste output can save close to half the total energy consumption that we now use to mine and process raw materials. Save that energy, say conservationists, and our oil dependence drops dramatically.

Here's an issue the Feds can barely touch: State, county and city governments make the country's solid-waste decisions. A push for recycling has to come from them, not Washington.

Even before the Iraqi crisis, states and localities were exhibiting their most serious moves ever on the recycling front.

Prince Georges County officials said on July 6 that they'd build the nation's largest facility to recover recyclable materials. It will be able to sort, separate and process more than 70,000 tons of newspapers, cardboard, glass, aluminum, plastic, tin and aluminum each year, and will open by 1992.

On the same July day, Gov. James Florio's task force on trash recommended that New Jersey aim for recycling 60 percent of its solid-waste output by 1995 -- the most ambitious goal any state has ever set.

Washington state is committed to 50 percent recycling by 1995. Connecticut aims at 25 percent by 1991, Florida 30 percent by 1994, Illinois 25 percent by 1994, New York 50 percent by 1997 and Pennsylvania 25 percent by 1997.

To skeptics who doubt these goals are achievable, there's the Seattle record. Recycling there has risen, in short order, to 50 percent, with a goal of 60 percent by 1998.

You can argue that recycling's most important along the more populated coasts, especially in a state like New Jersey which lost 78 percent of its landfill in the '80s and may soon be barred from exporting a major portion of its waste to leery target states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky.

But the waste problem is afflicting everyone. From sea to shining sea, landfills are filling up and closing down. And Americans angrily illustrate the NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard) syndrome at the very mention of new ones. Landfills are widely suspected of contaminating ground-water supplies.

Since the mid-'80s, there's been an equal citizen fervor against high-capacity incinerators that are suspected of generating air pollution including dioxin, nitrogen and sulphur oxides.

Our mounting energy dilemma may now accelerate the drive to recycling. Compared to the energy expended for original manufacture, it takes 90 percent less energy to remanufacture aluminum or plastics, 50 percent less for steel or paper, 30 percent less for glass.

The environmental payoff is also immense. A ton of remelted aluminum forgoes the need for four tons of bauxite and nearly a ton of petroleum coke. Burning a ton of paper releases 1,500 pounds of carbon dioxide, the ''greenhouse'' gas. Recycling that much paper saves 17 trees that absorb 250 pounds of carbon dioxide yearly, reports the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

Ideally, the federal government would be leading with recycling research and pilot programs. It isn't. But states and localities aren't waiting. The Council of Northeastern Governors set up a multi-state ''Northeast Source Reduction Council'' that's been negotiating ''smart packaging'' with the nation's major manufacturers. The goals: less waste volume, less toxics and a model for packaging rules that states across the country can reasonably impose.

Some counties (New York's Westchester and Minnesota's Hennepin, for example) are offering financial rewards to cities and towns that find ways to recycle and reduce their waste flow. There's more talk about attacking the problem of organic yard wastes that comprise 20 to 25 percent of the solid-waste stream. Neighborhood or community-based composting programs could theoretically recycle all yard wastes into soil conditioner.

On the paper front, states can emulate the Connecticut and California laws requiring that newsprint contain progressively larger percentages of recycled fibers, and less virgin pulp.

Some 250 million tires are scrapped each year. But the best solution yet found -- rubber pyrolysis to transfer the old tires into a marketable utility gas -- is so expensive and requires such a huge supply of tires that it may be outside the reach of most states. But several states, the Center for Policy Alternatives suggests, could enter into a compact to make the venture practicable.

More state and local leaders need to push now for such measures as recycling of plastics, ''bottle-bill'' deposit fees for containers and pricing garbage collection for households so people have incentives to reduce their trash flow.

It all adds up to a cultural revolution: making the disposal society think of the disposal costs of any item -- an auto, a can of paint, a battery -- from the moment of initial purchase.

Before the Middle East flared up, state and local politicians knew the landfill crises would drive them in this direction. Now, with energy again so critical and official Washington so listless and deficit-ridden, the state-city-county challenge enlarges farther: to provide leadership for a nation.

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