Is Recycling Dead?

The USA Today headline caught my eye. “Cities trying to rejuvenate recycling efforts,” it blared. “Oh great,” I thought. The National Recycling Coalition had just finished celebrating its 25th national congress and here was the mainstream media once again saying that recycling is in trouble.

The story, printed on the last Friday in October, was full of the usual suspects. We were told that “it costs more to recycle than to dump at a landfill,” that recycling “fell off America's radar,” and that many cities were trying to “re-energize” their recycling programs. “Egads,” I thought. “Is the end near?”

Oddly enough, EPA had already come to the rescue. Earlier that week, the agency had released its most recent garbage and recycling data. According to the feds, America's recycling rate doubled in the 15 years since 1990. While the increase in that rate slowed dramatically in the last five years, we continue to recycle and compost more materials every year and the recycling rate itself continues to rise. In this case, the “dying” patient is just a healthy teenager after his or her growth spurt is over.

Actually, recycling may be cursed with the same disease facing hot new businesses. Rapid growth doesn't last forever. When the pace of growth slows down, a business needs to successfully manage the transition. It needs to convince Wall Street analysts that it is still a solid investment. Recycling is no longer growing by leaps and bounds, but it is still fundamentally sound. Recycling programs will grow by attracting new customers and keeping old ones.

Let's put curbside recycling in perspective. The curbside collection of newspaper began after Earth Day in 1970. In 1976, an EPA demonstration program in two Massachusetts towns showed that cans and bottles could be successfully collected at the curbside along with newspaper. By the end of the decade, about 250 towns had curbside recycling.

In 1981, the Blue Box system was launched in Kitchener, Ontario, by the Laidlaw Waste Systems company. Throughout the '80s, recycling slowly and quietly expanded. By 1987, the number of curbside programs was twice as high as at the beginning of the decade.

Then, in March 1987, the garbage barge went on its Caribbean cruise and ended up launching the recycling boom. Now, American communities without a curbside recycling program are the exception, not the rule. Even today, while media stories about recycling programs in trouble get the most play, other, quieter stories tell of successes.

Yes, recycling can always use a promotional boost. The easiest way to let a recycling program stagnate is to fail to publicize how to recycle. New residents don't learn how to participate by osmosis. Just as they need to be told when and how to put out their garbage, they also need to be told when and how to put out their recyclables. The National Recycling Coalition's “Rebranding Recycling” campaign should provide good publicity tools to local programs.

And no, we still don't know how to effectively collect recyclables from apartment buildings or small businesses, and the strong recycling markets we have enjoyed for the last few years could turn sour. The worst thing we can do is to rest on our laurels. But don't panic. Recycling is in good shape.

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.