High-Hanging Fruit

TO GIVE AMERICA A HIGHER RECYCLING rate, we are told that we need to get more than the “low-hanging fruit.” We need to climb higher on the tree to get, I guess, the “high-hanging fruit.” If low-hanging fruit means easy-to-recycle materials, we had them by the mid-'80s.

By then, most large supermarket and retail chains had active corrugated box recycling programs; large offices recycled computer tab cards (remember those?); and the normal supply- and-demand dynamics of free markets were guaranteeing that end markets would buy the recyclables they needed.

The voyage of the garbage barge and the resulting state recycling laws redefined low-hanging fruit. The “easy” recyclables would now be newspaper, cans and bottles collected by curbside programs. Single-family, owner-occupied houses were not a difficult target. Recycling was a popular environmental activity, and everyone could see who recycled and who didn't. Community conformity could be a powerful pressure. Resource Recycling's Jerry Powell used to tell about driving down a street to survey bin set-out rates when a man ran out of a house with his recycling bin, giving the block a 100 percent participation rate. Upon closer inspection, he noticed that the bin was empty.

Today, recycling advocates are looking higher up the tree to increase recycling rates. Businesses and multi-family housing, especially apartment buildings, are the target. Yet these buildings have the opposite characteristics of single-family housing. Apartment residents act in anonymity to each other. They rarely know who is recycling, and who isn't. They don't pay directly for garbage collection so they have little financial incentive.

Office buildings are no different. My first recycling job was to implement the “Use It Again Sam!” program, EPA's first office paper recycling program. I quickly learned that single-agency buildings posed fewer problems than multi-tenant buildings because I only needed to convince one senior manager to support recycling. Office tenants don't pay directly for garbage collection either. Office buildings, however, have one big advantage over apartment houses. Janitors can leave trash cans at desks if they have recyclables in them.

That is why what's going on in Toronto and Seattle is so interesting. Both cities are determined to increase their recycling rate and are placing a great deal of emphasis on apartment buildings and businesses. In January, Seattle newspapers carried a host of stories about increased recycling enforcement at apartment complexes. Inspectors were leaving warning notices when recyclables were found mixed in with trash at a building's big garbage containers. Toronto also has an ambitious program to enforce recycling in multi-family housing. Inspectors are visiting buildings to determine which ones have notified residents of recycling programs, have sufficient recycling collection bins and are working with residents to ensure that recyclables are kept separate from trash.

Both cities realize that apartment managers have only indirect control over tenants' behavior. They can educate and cajole, but they can't afford to station a guard at the recycling and trash containers 24 hours a day to inspect trash. Along with city officials, they appeal to their tenants' good will to increase recycling. If they succeed, we'll be dining on high-altitude recyclables.

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].

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