Until now, incentives for the average
consumer to recycle have been mostly "pays good" or "feels
good." Increasingly, though, we may be moving toward a
different approach "Make it increasingly expensive not to."
Two of the influences pushing in that
direction are the greenhouse-gas alarm and the shrinkage of
local government revenue due to the economic downturn. Offering
policy viewpoints in both arenas is Alcoa Inc., Pittsburgh, a
founding member of the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, which
favors a cap-and-trade program and creating effective
technology for carbon capture. Other backers are Rio Tinto
Alcan and Chrysler LLC.
The metals-producing sector is divided on cap
and trade. Steelmaker Nucor Corp., for example, envisions the
consequence as dramatically higher prices for all types of
energy and a setback in global competitiveness.
Also on Alcoa's wish list is
"pay-as-you-throw"-volume-sensitive fees for trash collection,
so less garbage would mean lower payments by a household or
business. Faced with such a pocketbook impact, many customers
would suddenly feel motivated to maximize the removal of
recyclables from trash, and the local agency or company
handling garbage pickup would equally as suddenly encounter
less trash and more recyclables.
"You know, there's been a long-standing view
in the recycling world that if you pay enough money you can get
a sufficient supply of recycled material to meet your needs,"
Alcoa's Greg Wittbecker, director of corporate metal recycling
strategy, said during a conference call arranged by brokerage
Canaccord Adams Inc. "That theory doesn't seem to be quite
working for us in the aluminum industry," he said, referring to
the mild impact of the 2007-08 scrap price run-up on beverage
In a later conversation, he noted that San
Jose, Calif., is one of the largest jurisdictions using
"pay-as-you-throw." Homeowners there decide what size garbage
container to use, and the city's pickup fee is pegged to the
size of the container. The financial incentive to use smaller
trash containers has led to a shift of material out of the
trash and into the recycling pickup stream.
In a period of economic downturn, of course,
pay-as-you-throw has a second virtue. With local government
budgets facing great stringency, garbage collection fees are a
way to restore lost revenue.
State legislatures could foster
pay-as-you-throw, according to Wittbecker, by setting mandatory
landfill diversion targets for local government, with specified
rewards and penalties.
Another option for state lawmakers is a
program of container deposit fees, often labeled "bottle bill"
although also covering beverage cans-a strategy that sets a
deposit fee on canned and bottled beverages that is refunded
when the container is returned for recycling. "Recycling rates
in deposit states are 75 percent; in non-deposit states, 35
percent," Wittbecker said, portraying that approach as a
worthwhile option although not a cure-all. Deposit systems
exist in California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Iowa,
Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Oregon and
Electronics manufacturers are encountering
their own special version of pay-as-you-throw. Some states are
requiring computer and TV manufacturers to set up their own
free takeback programs or else write checks to a broader
program not under their control. These are alternate forms of
what's called manufacturer responsibility.
Faced with such a choice, some major TV and
computer manufacturers have decided that do-it-yourself is
better than paying into a statewide recycling structure. And
once they have their own structure for manufacturer
responsibility under way, they sometimes extend the takeback
program into other jurisdictions where their role is voluntary.
Such a path has been followed by the Panasonic-backed
Electronic Manufacturers Recycling Management Co.
One justification for imposing extra costs on
non-recyclers is that recycling momentum has fizzled since the
turn of the century, probably because the easy changes were
already made. That's the impression left by estimates contained
in a report commissioned by the U.S. Environmental Protection
The major gains in recycling occurred between
1990 and 2000, according to the report, Municipal Solid Waste
in the United States. In 1970, 93.4 percent of the garbage and
recyclables handled by (or for) local government went to
landfill. The following two decades saw declines to 90.4
percent and 83.8 percent, roughly 10 percentage points in 20
years. The century's final decade was impressive, falling more
than one percentage point a year to end at 71 percent of the
trash and recyclables intake going to landfill. But the pace of
diverting stuff from landfill has slowed, with the report
putting the most recent landfill figure, for 2007, at 66.6
The report showed that the best recycling
rate in municipal solid waste in 2007 was scored by nonferrous
metals other than aluminum, a category including vehicle
batteries, with a 69.3 percent ratio. The other scores were
54.5 percent for paper and cardboard, 33.8 percent for steel,
23.7 percent for glass, 21.8 percent for aluminum, 15.9 percent
for textiles, 14.7 percent for rubber and leather, 9.3 percent
for wood and 6.8 percent for plastics.