Taking responsibility for recycling 

A new measure to penalize us for being wasteful gets a mixed response

You pull into a convenience store to buy a soda. When you get home, you drop the empty 20-ounce bottle in the garbage bin outside. The next day, the garbage is picked up and dumped at a nearby landfill where the bottle joins millions of other beverage containers that didn't make it into a recycling bin. If, as you read this, you a see guilt trip coming, at least you've got plenty of travelling companions.

In Georgia, a whopping three-fourths of all recyclable beverage containers end up in the trash. Apparently, consumers didn't quite get the message when the virtues of recycling were in the spotlight about a decade ago, but this statistic now has environmentalists, in conjunction with Georgia's powerful carpet industry, poised to bring the issue of recycling back to the table in the form of new legislation designed to make us less wasteful.

Why the carpet industry? Because Georgia's carpet manufacturers are the largest recyclers of plastic bottles in the nation. Close to 40 percent of all plastic bottles collected nationwide are processed here into such products as polyester fiber for residential carpet. Ironically, with the majority of bottles in Georgia ending up in landfills, they are forced to import bottles from other states and as far away as Mexico.

"It just doesn't make any sense," says Bob Woodall, executive director of Waste Not Georgia, a Doraville-based environmental group that is one of the primary forces behind a comprehensive waste-reduction package expected to be presented during the upcoming state legislative session. To deal with the bottle problem, the package includes a bill that would tack a deposit fee on most plastic beverage bottles to encourage people to return them for recycling.

Modeled after California's successful program, the process would work like this: a shopper would pay an extra 10 cents on every beverage bottle she buys. When the bottles are emptied and cleaned, she would take them to a redemption center, not back to the store, where she would collect an immediate refund of the deposit. The practice has been adopted by 10 other states so far, and boasts an 80- to 90-percent return rate, Woodall says.

But wait a minute. Why do we need to coerce people into recycling, which we all learned in school is the right thing to do? Did we miss the lesson about dwindling rain forests and wasteful energy practices? A recent Environmental Protection Agency report says yes. Today, the majority of our garbage is made up of perfectly recyclable materials. As the three most commonly recycled materials, paper still comprises almost 40 percent of our garbage, plastic about 10 percent and glass almost 6 percent.

In 1992, knowing that too little material was being recycled and too much of it was going into landfills, the state of Georgia encouraged cities and counties to decrease their solid waste flow by 25 percent within five years. It was a suggestion, not a mandate, and consequently few numbers were reported to measure the progress. Today, most local governments agree that the goal is still largely unmet.

There is much speculation on why we, as a nation, have failed to make a habit of recycling. Experts lament that the importance of recycling likely dwindled in our minds when it stopped being a high-profile concern. The fear of the earth being overtaken by garbage -- epitomized in the 1970s PSAs showing a tear running down the wrinkled cheek of a buckskin-clad Iron Eyes Cody as he surveyed a vast, open-air landfill -- lost some of its potency as municipalities learned to become more creative in finding places to dump their trash.

The issue also has been, to some degree, replaced by a growing concern for air and water quality -- and the fact that recycling ties into that equation has not been emphasized enough.

Jay Donoway, the state recycling coordinator for Georgia, says a major deterrent to recycling is the convenience factor: People simply aren't willing to take the time to separate their garbage from their recyclables and their recyclables from each other.

Gwinnett is trying to sidestep the hurdle of convenience by providing curbside recycling options to most residents, according to Connie Wiggins, the county's solid waste coordinator. Depending on where they live, residents can typically recycle glass, plastic containers and aluminum cans in one curbside bin, as well as paper, which is kept separate.

For those who need an extra push, Lawrenceville, Snellville and Duluth have adopted "pay as you throw" programs, in which residents pay for the amount of non-recycled garbage the city picks up. In Duluth, residents pay $1 per 30-gallon bag, with an average household using six bags per month. City Administrator Phil McLemore says the practice shows immediate savings and records indicate that nearly 90 percent of all recyclables are being recovered.

The catch here, however, and another prime reason recycling hasn't taken off, is the fact that, on the household consumer level, it rarely pays for itself. From a strictly short-term standpoint, recycling doesn't make good business sense, with the cost of collecting and processing materials often running higher than the price for raw materials.

Although the markets for many recyclables are fairly strong in Georgia, they are non-existent for others. Plastics 1 and 2 -- soda bottles and milk jugs, respectively, as indicated by the number inside the triangle of arrows on the bottom of the container -- can fetch around 13 cents a pound in Georgia, but plastics 4 (a mustard bottle, for example), 5 (yogurt container), 6 (Styrofoam) and 7 (fruit cup) have no resale value and are bound for the dump.

The only way the private, nonprofit Gwinnett Recycling Bank has been able to remain a cost-effective enterprise is a 1990 agreement that allows it to use free local prison labor to perform the task of separating cans, glass and plastics, something most consumers are unwilling to do. The center pays a small amount for aluminum cans -- 30 cents a pound -- as well as plastic bottles, newspaper and office paper -- about a penny for every two pounds.

Thus, for recycling to succeed, it must be presented to consumers not as a pocketbook priority, but as a social responsibility, says Craig Swear, president of the Georgia Recycling Coalition.

"Recycling due to value in com-modity is the wrong direction," Swear explains. "But the environmental reasons more than justifies recycling. We've wiped out so many rainforests and trees -- it's just the right thing to do."

For instance, although landfill space may not be a major concern now, obviously it has its eventual limits. Kurt Smith, conservation chairman of the Gwinnett Sierra Club, worries about the health of residents living near landfills, noting that spills and seepage are still possible, despite the requirement that dumps be equipped with plastic liners. "The only way we will know is when the people five miles downstream get sick," he says.

Energy conservation -- a quaint, Carter-era notion to some -- is another reason to support recycling. State recycling coordinator Donoway notes that the greatest environmental benefit of recycling is to air and water. Producing aluminum from recycled materials reduces water consumption, energy use and air pollutants each by a full 95 percent, compared to the use of raw materials. In the production of glass, the use of 50-percent recycled materials reduces water consumption by half.

Not recycling is an incredible waste of resources, says LuAnn Chambers, division manager of SP Recycling in Norcross. "There are plenty of drop-off locations available and there is absolutely no reason why news- paper, paper, aluminum and plastic should be taking up space in landfills when they can be reused," she says.

The beauty of recycling, she notes, is that products have the ability to morph into other products for continued use. Plastic becomes more plastic, carpet or even polyester fleece used for clothing. Paper has the ability to be reincarnated several times, from white office paper to copier paper, newspaper, tissue paper, toilet paper and egg cartons, until it has completed all of its lifetimes. Glass and metal is completely reusable and can be recycled over and over with no loss of quality.

Studies show these big-picture reasons are what motivate most dedicated recyclers, rather than any short-term payoff. When the county did a public opinion survey five years ago, they found that the bulk of people who recycle do so because they feel it's the right thing to do.

Even business is showing it social conscience: BJ Landfill in Norcross was the first landfill in metro Atlanta to use the methane gas produced by the garbage to power local homes. It creates enough energy to power about 2,600 homes in the area, a company spokesman says.

But many people still have to pick up the habit, and that's where Woodall's comprehensive waste-reduction package comes in. The proposals would mandate practices designed to boost recycling, through such measures as the bottle deposit bill, increased fees for using landfills and additional restrictions on what items can be dumped in landfills.

Although it hasn't yet found a legislative sponsor, the bottle bill already faces strong opposition from the Georgia Soft Drink Association, which boasts such heavy-hitter members as Coke and Pepsi. Executive director Kevin Perry says that, since beverage containers represent only 3 percent of the solid waste stream, bottle deposits would unfairly target a small contributor to the problem.

And opposition may not come from the soft drink industry alone. Others, such as Gwinnett's Wiggins and Georgia's Donoway, think that mandating recycling is the wrong approach. They believe it should be done voluntarily, and for the right reasons.

Legislation or not, the ultimate success may be a renewed public interest in recycling in general. The challenge, according to Wiggins, is getting people into the habit. Since we generate 25 percent more waste between Thanksgiving and New Years Day than during any other 40-day period in the year, she suggests now is a great time to start. Consider it a gift to the environment and generations to come.

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