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The Garbage Barge

Twenty years ago, on March 22, a tugboat named the Break of Dawn sailed out of New York Harbor pulling a barge full of Long Island's finest trash. Piloted by Duffy St. Pierre, the trip was supposed to be a simple shipment of trash to a southern landfill. Instead, Mobro 4000 (the barge's real name) became a modern day Flying Dutchman, wandering from port to port but never allowed to stay and unload.

The garbage barge wasn't just redolent with remarkable names. The misbegotten cruise quickly became a media sensation. The economy was hot, and news was slow. Garbage, which is just the effluence of our affluence, was the perfect target. Greenpeace, Phil Donahue and Johnny Carson all used the barge as fodder. Six months after it sailed, the garbage barge's trash was burned in a Brooklyn incinerator, and the ashes buried back in Long Island. The media didn't attend the funeral.

After the circus was over, the barge had a profound impact on solid waste and recycling. Within three years, most states passed laws requiring some kind of municipal recycling. The United States went from about 600 cities with curbside recycling programs to almost 10,000. Our recycling rate is three times higher now than it was in 1987.

And yet, in spite of all of these laws and programs, we still haven't solved the fundamental problem of recycling. We know how to collect recyclables from single-family housing. We know how to process recyclables for end markets. But we haven't solved the value problem.

All those new recycling programs increased the cost of municipal garbage collection. New trucks and new crews were added to the mix. Some cost savings were gained by eliminating garbage collection routes and by capitalizing on higher disposal costs stemming from the Environmental Protection Agency's Subtitle D landfill requirements. But for most communities, recycling became an additional expense, because the value of recyclables is less than the cost of collecting and processing them.

The value of recyclables depends on a number of factors including the supply and price of competing raw materials and demand for the end product. In most cases, the price of virgin raw materials sets the price for recycled raw materials. And that price is highest when virgin raw materials are expensive and scarce. Recyclable raw materials, however, can be burdened by inconsistent supply and quality.

Many states have tried to address the value problem, but only California has come close to solving it. The Golden State's container and electronics recycling laws guarantee that local recyclers will cover their costs for those materials, ensuring that recycling will not become an unfunded mandate. California's solution is not cheap. The state has a large bureaucracy dedicated to yearly reassessments of container recycling program costs. For electronics, California has an advanced recycling fee. As a result, the state's e-recycling program is the most successful in the country. But it too is complex to administer and enforce.

Recycling remains politically popular. Most taxpayers understand that it is not a free lunch. As long as collection is reliable and the increased cost isn't too high, they are willing to pay the freight. But recyclers need to be careful. Good will doesn't last forever. Can we resolve the value problem before we lose the public's good will?

Opinions in this column do not necessarily reflect the National Solid Wastes Management Association or the Environmental Industry Associations. E-mail the author at: cmiller@envasns.org.

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