Back to the 90s

IT'S UNDERSTANDABLE THAT RECYCLING enthusiasts may grow a little misty-eyed when they remember the early and mid-1990s. No, they probably wouldn't be weeping nostalgic tears for the heyday of “Friends” or “Seinfeld,” or Americans' 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week obsession with all things O.J. Simpson. Instead, they would be remembering a time when Americans greeted recycling with a warm embrace instead of an indifferent shrug.

In just one dramatic example, the recycling rate for polyethylene terephthalate (PET) containers stood at 39.7 percent in 1995, according to the National Association for PET Container Resources. By 2003, the rate had tumbled to 19.6 percent before increasing two percentage points last year (see related story on p. 10). Likewise, the aluminum can recycling rate rose slightly in 2004 to 51.2 percent, according to the Aluminum Association. That's still a significant drop from 1992's rate of 67.9 percent.

What has happened? Recycling experts note that increased away-from-home consumption means that cans are less likely to end up in residential curbside recycling programs, which have actually proliferated greatly during the past decade. Additional reasons include a decline in mobile buy-back centers in response to the installation of curbside programs, decreased mainstream media coverage of recycling and a lack of promotion by cities and counties.

The Aluminium Can Council (ACC), a partnership between the Aluminium Association and the Can Manufacturer's Institute, is seeking to put an end to the recycling funk. The ACC recently unveiled its Curbside Value Partnership (CVP), a program that brings together people such as municipal recycling coordinators, materials recovery facility operators and private contractors to bolster curbside recycling nationwide. Communities that join the partnership receive research data, best practices information, public relations advice, templates for promotional items and, in some instances, even funds to help their programs. In exchange, the communities agree to ramp up their promotional efforts and share data from pilot projects.

According to the CVP, Brevard County, Fla., a member of the partnership, conducted a three-month public relations campaign in which promotional magnets and fliers were distributed to residents. The program netted a nearly 7 percent increase in the recyclables collected and a 132 percent return on investment. “It's not like we've got this model that we're selling,” says Steve Thompson, director of recycling initiatives for the ACC. “We've just come to see some programs and some applications that work well, and we're sharing that.”

In light of the low-cost, practical techniques that CVP members have to share, joining it seems to make abundant good sense. If enough communities join, maybe there'll be no reason for any nostalgic tears. Instead, we could all be recycling like it's 1995.

The author is the editor of Waste Age