The likely future of recycling can be glimpsed in the intentions of City Council members Sallie Clark and Richard Skorman to explore ways for city government to enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of recycling efforts in Colorado Springs.
"City government can take more of a proactive role in this area," said Clark. "I believe the city can facilitate getting trash haulers, citizens and state lawmakers to the table to discuss things they could do to help each other make recycling a win-win proposition.
"Whether you look at it from the perspective of a private citizen, elected official or business owner," she said, "it's frustrating how much of the stuff we're dumping into landfills could be recycled to genuine economic and environmental advantage."
Skorman agrees, though he says he's yet to discuss the issue with Clark.
"I'd like to see a recycling program for City Hall," he said. "If we had a policy about purchasing products made from recycled materials, it would set a standard for the public to emulate and help to stabilize the markets for recyclable materials -- the biggest problem facing recycling efforts at present."
Shift in the wind
While recycling was once deemed the province of Nader-esque counter culturites, public-private cooperation appears to be the recycling wave of the future. Increasing numbers of states and municipalities require recycling, and a surge of mainstream, family value-types are voluntarily embracing what recycling proponents call "the three-R ethic": reduce, reuse, recycle.
According to Neil Seldeman of the Institute for Self-Reliance, the number of curbside recycling programs has increased from just two in 1970 to more than 7,000 today. "Provided they're well-designed and publicized, even voluntary recycling programs in suburban communities routinely achieve participation rates of 80 percent and higher," Seldemen writes. "More people recycle today than vote."
Trash removal in Colorado Springs is totally free-market, but most haulers offer free curbside recycling service to customers who use their companies for trash removal.
Bestway Disposal owner Phil Kiemel estimates that 40 to 50 percent of his customers use his recycling service at least occasionally, and 10 to 15 percent "religiously."
Ken Morford of Recycle America, a subsidiary of Waste Management, sees "a definite upswing in interest. New subscribers in particular are asking for it. They come from areas where recycling is a way of life. They've seen the benefit and they want it here, too."
There are a variety of dollars-and-cents and forward-looking arguments for shoring up recycling efforts. Since recycled materials have already been refined and processed, using them in lieu of virgin raw materials requires a less energy-intensive manufacturing process, creates less air pollution and cuts back on natural resource depletion.
Mike Ruzzin of Ecocycle notes, for example, that recycled glass melts at a lower temperature than the materials used to make virgin glass, and it takes 65 to 95 percent less energy to make aluminum cans from recycled cans than from raw ore.
Use of recycled materials also means less refuse dumped into landfills, which are increasingly expensive and sources of ecological disaster. One out of five Superfund sites are former municipal solid-waste landfills. Many landfill materials will never biodegrade, and though laws now require landfills to be lined with clay, it's not known how long such seals remain viable.
An array of industry, government and academic studies show, meanwhile, that we could put a halt to the practice of clear-cutting that is steadily depleting our old growth forests were we to achieve 50 percent recycling of the newsprint and paper products produced annually. At present, 20 percent is recycled.
Not all that glitters
Neither its surging popularity nor the increasing tendency for local governments to require it assures a rosy future for recycling. Recyclable materials are only as valuable as the market for them, and that market is extremely volatile.
Local hauling officials and recycling proponents both say the markets for recycled aluminum, paper and cardboard are fairly healthy and steady, but the markets for glass and plastic range from depressed to non-existent.
Many haulers and all recycling proponents say, however, that steps could be taken via consumer, producer and government cooperation to stabilize the markets for recyclables.
Consumers can increase the demand for recyclable materials by practicing what is called "precycling" -- recycling at home and then purchasing wherever possible products that have been made with recycled materials.
It would be expensive at first though cost-saving later on, but manufacturers could design products -- either voluntarily or through government incentives and/or regulations -- in ways that would facilitate reuse and recycling.
Clint Morfort of America Recycles notes that plastic recycling is crippled by the fact that there are around 2,500 types of plastic, most of which can't be mixed in production. He suggests that pressure or incentives could be put in place to encourage plastic manufacturers to design and produce their product in a way to make it more reusable and recyclable.
Worldwide, virtually every industrialized country but the United States has enacted what is called Extended Producer Responsibility legislation that requires use of recyclables in manufacturing and puts greater onus on manufacturers to design and produce their products in a way that facilitates the process of collecting, sorting and recycling package waste.
The Boulder model
Many recycling proponents argue for a cooperative, public/private recycling program for Colorado Springs modeled on the one used in Boulder.
Trash pickup in that city is entirely private, but the city passed an ordinance in 1991 that obligates haulers to provide curbside recycling pickup along with their regular service. The ordinance proved so popular -- though entirely voluntary, the participation rate is 80 to 85 percent of all Boulder households -- that Boulderites voted a tax in 1994 to fund it and City Council adopted a goal to recycle 50 percent of all discarded wastes.
When costs began exceeding the $880,000 annual funding, Council voted in a "pay-as-you-throw" system of payment. Customers still get free curbside recycling, but their fees for trash collection (everything left over after recycling) now go up in 100 percent increments for each barrel left for the hauler.
The system, argues Kara Dinhoffer, recycling coordinator for the city of Boulder, creates an incentive for customers to recycle more and waste less.
Meanwhile, the $880,000 that went into former program will be used to expand the list of materials that customers can leave at curbside for recycling, among which includes grass clippings and leaf rakings, corrugated cardboard, telephone books and magazines. This in turn lowers trash bills by reducing the amount of trash hauled to the landfill.