Below the Radar

For the past decade, garbage and recycling have not been among America's significant political issues. Until last July's Senate hearing on bottle bills and government procurement of recycled content products (or to be more precise, the Fed's failure to procure), Congress had ignored recycling for a decade.

At the state level, the recycling laws enacted in the past 10 years were attempts to tweak existing legislation instead of launching bold new initiatives. Also, some newspaper minimum content laws were softened, state recycling goals were delayed, recycling funds were diverted to other programs, and every year the California legislature has tried to improve its complicated bottle deposit and diversion laws.

Legislators show little interest in recycling and garbage because most Americans believe we've won the war on trash. This should be no surprise because our interests in garbage and recycling are fueled by crises, and we haven't had any in more than a decade.

The first crisis was on Earth Day in 1970. Against a backdrop of air and water pollution, including smoke belching from uncontrolled garbage incinerators and open burning dumps, Americans embraced recycling as something they could “do” about pollution. Following Earth Day, Congress passed the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, and, in 1976, approved the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). Despite its name, RCRA has little to do with recycling and establishes authority for solid waste and recycling at the state, not federal, level.

Then, in March 1987, the garbage barge Mobro set sail. The media embraced the voyage. Garbage and recycling were cover stories. America was in a full-blown trash crisis. We were imperiled by mile-high mounds of refuse threatening to overwhelm the landscape. Even worse, because Americans always have had ambivalent feelings about our affluence, the garbage barge hit us in our Puritan gut. Within four years, almost every state had enacted legislation requiring some sort of recycling.

After that, recycling faded from media and legislative attention. In fact, the only time recycling was mentioned on the Hill was at flow control hearings in the mid-'90s when recyclers would testify that flow control diverted recyclables to disposal facilities.

The media pretty much ignored recycling and garbage, too, until New York City's recent decision to scrap its plastic and glass recycling program. Now, other local governments such as Dallas, Vicksburg, Miss., and St. Petersburg County, Fla., have questioned or rejected recycling programs. But still we haven't seen the glut of stories bewailing our ability to manage trash or to recycle like there was a decade ago.

I expect that some cash-strapped governments will cut back on recycling. Some of these efforts will succeed, others will be defeated by public protests. Recycling itself won't be a media issue until a crisis occurs. But who knows, maybe as I am writing this a barge full of e-waste is setting sail for Asia. Maybe it will be turned away by governments upset over working conditions at processing facilities. Maybe the barge will appear on the front pages. And then again, maybe not.

The columnist is state programs director for the Environmental Industry Associations, Washington, D.C.

Opinions in this column do not necessarily reflect the National Solid Wastes Management Association or the Environmental Industry Associations. E-mail the author at: [email protected].