WW: How will your experience from Oswego County, N.Y., contribute to your NRC tasks?
ML: My position at the NRC will allow me to bring my hands-on experience with solid waste and re-cycling programs to the national level. For example, when we [at the NRC] de-bate over policies, I feel confident that my position with Oswego County keeps me in touch with how that policy may effect the people who are doing the recycling. I think that kind of perspective is critical.
WW: Realistically, how much of the waste stream can be recycled?
ML: Waste streams vary from one community to the next. As an example, let's examine Oswego County. Oswego is a relatively ru-ral municipality that is a suburban bedroom community for the Syracuse metropolitan area. We are heavily industrialized, which is key. Since we take in a lot of in-dustrial non-hazardous waste into our facilities, we have been able to achieve about a 52 percent reduction rate since 1988. This does not include old scrap cars, etc. Al-though we still have a ways to go, if we are aggressive we can probably reach the 70 to 75 percent range. Remember, this is not just recycling. That estimate includes waste reduction efforts and educational programs that will make people aware of the choices they have as consumers.
Overall, I still think that the sky is the limit. Although I do not be-lieve in setting goals, you must try to continue to do the best you can do. The state of New York, for ex-ample, has a 40 percent recycling goal. But what does that mean? Does that mean that when they reach 40 percent they will stop re-cycling? In my opinion, you should keep going as long as you are in your job. Continue to look at the materials that are being thrown a-way and continue to try different management strategies to try to reduce them.
I could easily say to you that I think that a 50 or 60 percent recycling rate in a residential community is about the maximum that can be achieved. But that would be a misleading statement since the waste stream, packaging and recycling technologies could change. I don't think 100 percent is ever achievable, at least the way things are now.
WW: Besides market development, what are the most pressing problems facing recycling?
ML: Misinformation. There have been a lot of articles lately that say recycling is dead or that it is never going to be a viable alternative. A lot of the media's sources may be misinformed. We must make sure that we do the best we can to get factual information out to the general public. This includes letting the public know what is really happening with recycling and what recycling's real potential is.
It is key is to make people aware that recycling is not just an environmental issue, but more importantly, it is an economic issue. With the economy how it is these days, we need to emphasize the jobs created and the economic de-velopment needed to make it economically positive. Then we will get a lot more stakeholders out there and the backlash to recycling will subside. If you consider the general public to be constituent groups of elected officials then the general public [through the media] will be told that recycling is not what it is cracked up to be. Eventually elected officials will reflect their feelings in policies that could hurt recycling.
WW: What are the barriers to market development? If you could rectify just one of these barriers, which one would it be?
ML: We have to be sure there is a level playing field. Industries that are taking secondary material feedstock need to know that they are competing against a similar industry that is taking virgin feedstock. They must know that there is no subsidy for the virgin materials, no tax credits and that everything is equal - regulations, environmental impact, everything. I don't think we can say that right now. There are still some things that need to be done to level the playing field for market development.
There also are traditional economic development agencies in this country that have not realized yet that recycling could be a tool in their economic development plan of action. New York State's Department of Economic Development, for example, started an Office of Recycling Market Development a few years ago to aggressively pursue recycling industries.
I would like to see this happen in all 50 states. The economic development agencies, which most states have, need to elevate the priority of recycling market development. Some of the states may not even have it in their domain, but I think on a national level this would encourage market development.
The NRC 's Chicago Board of Trade project will be an electronic trade medium for recyclable materials. This will help to standardize specifications. For example, a bale of #6 newspapers in the northeast may be completely different from a #6 bale of newspapers in the northwest. The differences in specifications may cause problems for various paper mills that are going to take a bale from both regions of the country. We need to do a lot more to standardize the specifications of materials, even if just on a regional basis.
[To rectify just one barrier] I would level the playing field to allow our free market system to work. This, for example, will allow the PolyAnna Recycling Co. in Wisconsin to compete against a petroleum company that makes the same product. PolyAnna deserves the same opportunity in the marketplace as Dow Chemical. If we can get to this point then that will greatly help market development.
WW: Ten years from now, what role do you think recycling will have in an integrated waste management system?
ML: I'd like to think that the hierarchy of solid waste management is a pretty solid hierarchy with waste reduction and reuse on the top and recycling next. I think it might be very simplistic for me to say, but I also think that recycling will always be in that number two spot. I don't see it moving below incineration, for instance, and I don't see it moving above waste reduction. I think it will be viable and I think you will see more and more communities with curbside recycling programs in the future. I definitely see recycling moving in a positive way but its not going to happen on its own.