Cities trying to rejuvenate recycling efforts
10/27/2006 12:50 AM
By Dennis Cauchon, USA TODAY
(USA TODAY) -- A dead 150-pound Rottweiler. A disassembled pinball machine. A hamster inside a cage.
Those are some of the things the city of Fort Worth has found inside its big, new recycling containers.
"Some people are just dumb. Others do not care," says Maurice Spoons, who walks the recycling auditing beat, handing out $10 tickets to offenders.
Fort Worth is preparing to get tough by issuing $315 tickets to people who repeatedly put the wrong thing in recycling containers. "One mistake can send a truckload of material to the landfill," Spoons says.
Local governments are using financial incentives and penalties to try to re-energize the nation's recycling effort. Recycling boomed during the 1980s and early 1990s, driven by new government regulations and a fear that landfill sites were becoming scarce.
Today, landfills have plenty of capacity, interstate garbage shipments are routine and recycling has lost its buzz as a hot environmental issue. "It fell off America's radar," says Anjia Nicolaidis of the National Recycling Coalition, an advocacy group. "When you think environmentalism today, you think more about hybrid cars or global warming."
The economics of recycling it costs more to recycle than to dump at a landfill have been a constant threat to recycling programs. Waste management officials are trying to reverse that.
In November, Norfolk will have a two-week "Trash for Cash" program, a sort of instant lottery for recyclers. Some lucky households that produce a good, clean batch of recycled material will get $100 on the spot.
"The carrot usually works better than the stick," Norfolk recycling director John Deuel says.
More common are efforts to charge people based on the volume of garbage they produce.
Fort Worth took one of the most dramatic steps to promote recycling three years ago when it started charging based on the size of the garbage can parked at the curb. It costs $12.75 a month to have a 32-gallon trash can, $17.75 for a 64-gallon one and $22.75 for a 96-gallon container.
Portland, Ore., and many other cities that have high recycling rates charge more for garbage than recycling.
"How you price garbage makes a huge difference in how much recycling you do," says Brian Boerner, director of environmental management for Fort Worth.
When forced to pay for how much garbage they produced, Fort Worth residents started throwing more into the recycling bin. The portion of households recycling went from 21% to 85%, Boerner says. The amount of trash diverted from landfills went from 6% to 35%.
The city went from losing $600,000 a year to making $1 million because it is selling more recyclable material for reprocessing, Boerner says. Fort Worth would make another $1 million if people would stop ruining loads of recycling materials by dumping diapers, syringes, food scraps and other material into the containers.
That's why Fort Worth has the ticket-writing "Blue Crew," a team of six recycling cops walking the beat, sticking their gloved hands inside blue recycling carts. They travel in teams of two for safety. People are often not happy to see the city inspecting their recycling.
Spoons gets an unusual look at life in America by going through people's garbage. "It's kind of scary actually hooded masks, dead animals, syringes," he says. The dead Rottweiler died in an apparent dog fight. Recently, his problem has been more mundane: vacuum cleaner bags. "What are they thinking?" he asks. "Recycling isn't that hard to do."
The trend to big one-cart-takes-all recycling containers has made recycling more convenient. People can throw paper, bottles, jars and cans of all colors, shapes and sizes into the same bin.
"It fits with today's busy lifestyle," says James Chiles of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. "The question is: How much of this stuff actually gets recycled and how much goes to the landfill?"
The all-purpose recycle cart has increased volume but worsened the headache of contaminated loads of recyclable material. Most carts are dumped uninspected into automated recycling trucks.
"Local governments focus on collections but sometimes don't pay attention to what's going on at the manufacturer," says Susan Kinsella, executive director of Conservatree, a non-profit group that provides technical assistance to recyclers.
When consumers separate recycled items, about 3% doesn't get recycled, Kinsella says. When items are tossed in together, about 10%-14% ends up at the landfill.
Recycling costs about twice as much as dumping the material at a landfill, says Bucknell University environmental economist Thomas Kinnaman.
He says recycling doesn't make much economic or environmental sense, but it's so popular with some consumers that it's understandable why cities do it.
"Recycling is more like entertainment," says Kinnaman, who recycles. "People enjoy it because it makes them feel less guilty about their effect on the environment."
Nationwide, the amount of garbage collected for recycling is growing slowly, to 58.4 million tons last year. That's 24% of the nation's garbage, up from 22% in 2000 and 14% in 1990.
"We're recycling more and more," says Susan Anderson, director of Portland's Office of Sustainable Development, "but we're having a hard time keeping pace with the total amount of garbage produced from all the junk we buy."