Energy & Environment

Talking Trash

The rapid expansion of municipally run recycling programs hasn't been all that economically or environmentally beneficial.
by | January 2002

Tom Arrandale

Tom Arrandale is a GOVERNING correspondent.

Years ago, we paid a young man about $20 a month to pick up used newspapers, bottles, cans and plastic from our sidewalk. He drove by every two weeks and hauled the stuff off in a battered pickup and homemade trailer. He was forced out of business when the city got around to starting its own curbside recycling service.

The municipal program reached more homes than a one-man grassroots operation, so that probably counts as progress. But he took glass and other materials that the city didn't collect. What's more, he seemed a lot more committed to making recycling work than the public servants who raced big trucks down the block first thing in the morning-- sometimes before we could get bags out to curbside.

Since then, I've had my doubts about whether municipally run recycling programs do much to improve the environment. And now that recycling has run into hard times, the entrepreneurial spirit of its early pioneers is sorely missed. Recovery rates nationwide seem to have topped out at roughly 28 percent, and Americans are now throwing out more trash per capita than ever. States have missed or finessed ambitious waste-recovery targets. Secondary materials markets have sagged the last couple of years; instead of paying for recycled glass, processors now charge to take it. And so far, all those intriguing schemes to turn hard-to-recycle wastes into compost, pavement, building materials and other futuristic uses haven't made much of a dent in the amount of garbage that goes to landfills.

Localities are clearly struggling. Nashville is trying to revive a 10-year-old collection program for 19,000 households, a program the city suspended last year. But other local governments are shutting materials-recovery facilities down. Some are cutting costs by merging recycling efforts with neighboring communities. Not so long ago, says Kay Martin, the solid waste program director for Ventura County, California, "it seemed like we were making steadier progress than that."

Recycling's foundering economic fortunes aren't local government's fault. But in a book published last year, three sociology professors suggest that ill-conceived municipal curbside programs have kept recycling from realizing its full potential as an economically and environmentally sustainable undertaking. In "Urban Recycling and the Search for Sustainable Community Development," authors Adam S. Weinberg, David M. Pellow and Allan Schnaiberg concluded that Chicago's "blue bag" program that collects recyclable material along with regular garbage has, in fact, killed off nonprofit recycling ventures that had begun generating new businesses and good-paying jobs for impoverished inner-city neighborhoods. Recycling once promised long-term economic as well as environmental benefits, they argue, but instead it's turned into "a commodity-based, profit-driven competitive industry in which large private firms using public dollars are squeezing the life out of smaller nonprofit and family-owned recyclers."

Recycling advocates dispute the sociologists' pessimism. In Chicago, despite the "blue bag" program, the nonprofit Resource Center has preserved a niche by running a large recycling yard in the impoverished Grand Crossing neighborhood and operating buy-back centers paying cash for recyclables in the city's public housing proj- ects. Nonprofit community groups run citywide recycling programs in the university towns of Berkeley, Ann Arbor and Boulder. Will Toor got his first job when he moved to Boulder picking up recyclables in an old school bus for EcoCycle, the local organization that's run the city recycling effort for 25 years. Toor is now Boulder's mayor, but he says that "a mission-driven nonprofit is better able to be innovative and respond to changing conditions than the city."

In most places, however, state laws set demanding waste-diversion goals that compel cities and counties to run large-scale curbside programs as adjuncts to public or private trash-collection operations. In truth, visionary dreams of turning recycling into a local economic engine never had much of a chance. "If you want to talk about sustainability, you have to go upstream," says Martin, referring to the need to change manufacturing technologies. "I don't think capturing bottles and cans is going to get us there."

There's still plenty of room for innovation in dealing with solid waste. Ventura County, for instance, is working with a local university, naval base, farmers and restaurants to convert agricultural waste into energy feedstocks and blend kitchen grease into diesel fuel. "We have to start at the local level" to develop alternative uses for that material, Martin says. By itself, recycling has its limits; and pioneers like the young man with the pickup have gone the way of returnable glass milk bottles. Now it's up to local officials to come up with better ideas--and follow them up with enthusiasm--to make the most of the trash they're in charge of.


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