Recycling Goals or Dreams?

In the early 1990s, most of the states and many local governments set recycling goals. Most of these goals were made in response to political pressure and without any thought to their feasibility.

My home county's 50 percent recycling goal wasn't chosen to protect the public health, provide any environmental benefits or be more cost-effective. Instead, it was chosen because of the politics of garbage. Several council members would only vote for a county garbage incinerator if the county also set a 50 percent recycling goal.

Goals are important. They give us a target so that we can focus our efforts. But goals are most useful when they are realistic. Unfortunately, more aggressive recycling goals require city and county solid waste staff to play number games instead of concentrating on running cost-effective programs.

In my county, these games include keeping two sets of recycling books, launching new recycling programs based on inflated estimates of participation and counting incinerator ash "recycling" toward the 50 percent goal.

Using Maryland's state-approved methodology, my county has a 27 percent recycling rate. But when we use the county's other set of books, we have a 35 percent rate. To reach the higher rate, the county estimated the impact of grasscycling and backyard-composting programs on the amount of yard waste generated.

No one knows if the numbers are accurate. But the politicians are happy because the recycling rate is higher. Ironically, less yard waste is one of the bright sides of the unusually intense drought the East Coast is suffering this summer. If the county includes the impact of the drought in its 1999 numbers, our recycling rate will be higher.

In another attempt to increase the recycling rate, the county is launching a residential mixed paper recycling program. The county's plan assumes its residents will recycle mixed paper at the highest rate in the country. If we do, we will make some progress toward the 50 percent goal, while also suffering a multi-million dollar increase in the solid waste budget.

And if we don't do such a good job? The recycling rate won't go up as much, but the deficit will.

My favorite example of gamesmanship, however, is the idea of using incinerator ash to increase the recycling rate. As the last tool in their rush to achieve a 50 percent rate, our incinerator ash will be "recycled" into roadbed material. County taxpayers will pay more than the current cost of landfilling the ash, but we will get the pleasure of a higher recycling rate!

In reality, recycling goals are artificial. After all, with one exception, every state and industry goal is a number ending in either "0" or "5." Why? Because we use a base 10 number system.

Numbers divided by "5" are easy to remember and intuitively feel comfortable. Best of all, they aren't complicated by science, cost or reason. They aren't rocket science, but they feel good.

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]