Local Laws Determine How to Recycle

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PHOTO: FOTOLIA/ANDREA DANTI
Local communities lead the way with recycling programs

For the past several years, the good folks at the
Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Washington, D.C. have
been working to help urban residents gain greater control
over their lives through the use of low-technology,
decentralist tools and concepts. We strongly believe that
more people (city dwellers and country folk alike) should
be exposed to the institute’s admirable efforts, which is
why we’ve made this “what’s happening where” report one of MOTHER EARTH NEWS’ regular features.

Most recycling takes place at the local level, with
material being salvaged in city dumps, on the curbsides of
neighborhood streets and at drop-off recycling centers.
Therefore, the majority of the laws and regulations that
encourage or inhibit this type of conservation are enacted
by individual communities — and many recycling activists
are passing up Washington, D.C. in order to work with their
local city councils, county commissions and state
agencies. The efforts of such concerned citizens have
produced a number of new laws that break down barriers to
recycling.

Litter Taxes Help the Packaging Industry

“Litter tax” laws and state resource recovery bonding
authorities are probably, at present, the most reliable
sources of funds for recyclers. But, both of these
approaches have their drawbacks.

Litter and recycling taxes are paid by manufacturers,
distributors or retailers of products. The collected funds
are then distributed, in the form of grants or loans, to
litter education groups or recycling activities. Such taxes
have brought in some $10 million, nationally, over the past
few years.

However, the programs do represent a compromise: They allow
the packaging industry to tax itself as an alternative to
accepting container legislation (“bottle bills”) and they
encourage recyclers to forgo bottle-bill efforts in
exchange for needed capital. According to Armen Stepanian
of the Fremont Recycling Station in Seattle, litter taxes
that are used to set up comprehensive curbside recycling
operations will result in saving far more material than
that represented by the 6 percent to 8 percent of the waste stream
typically eliminated by a bottle bill.

Litter taxes have been opposed, however, by the National
Association of Recycling Industries (NARI), a trade
association of salvage dealers. NARI feels that the taxes
subsidize competitors to established salvage operations,
and its members are particularly disturbed because some
litter-tax grantees have used capital to handle commercial
and industrial waste streams rather than household waste
streams, as was intended.

Furthermore, the grants have been consistently awarded to
groups planning to build collection systems. But, such
centers deal with only half of the recycling process. If
there’s no way to use the collected materials,
markets quickly become saturated, prices fall and the
entire system is undermined. For the most part, market
development — which would encourage the processing of
collected material — has gone unfunded.

There are still other problems in the manner in which the
tax is commonly used. Recyclers in Colorado, for example,
found that $388,000 of the $486,000 so far collected by
that state’s litter tax has gone to industry-sponsored
cleanup programs. Projects of this sort are extremely
unpopular among recyclers, who generally feel that litter
control is a minor problem when compared to the task of
adapting our current solid-waste management practices to a
system that’s based on recycling.

And, even though litter taxes provide a steady cash flow, as
container legislation doesn’t, evidence from several states
that have bottle bills shows that such laws tend
to encourage other forms of recycling. In Oregon,
Connecticut, Ohio and Michigan, bottle bills have
stimulated new private and community businesses that redeem
and process deposit glass, metal and plastic containers.
In Charlotte, Michigan, for example, the Owens-Illinois glass plant now
recycles 300 tons per day, which is a dramatic increase. And, in
Oregon, where virtually no glass was reprocessed
before that state’s bottle bill was passed, a single plant
is recycling 40,000 tons per year.

“Deposit legislation,” concludes a survey prepared by Tania
Lipshutz and Jerry Powell, “results in massive
multimaterial recycling and good opportunities for
community recyclers, while improving the professionalism of
municipal recycling.”

No wonder that, in at least two
litter-tax states (California and Colorado), there are
renewed efforts to pass container deposit legislation. Many activists believe, that litter taxes have
actually helped to prolong the use of one-way beverage
containers to far too long.

Resource Recovery Programs

In states that have resource recovery agencies
(California, Ohio, Connecticut, Florida, New York and
Wisconsin), recyclers generally aren’t given a fair share
of the economic pie, even though they require much smaller
amounts of capital than do the waste-to-energy projects
that do receive bonds, loans and grants. In
Wisconsin, recyclers and environmentalists have had to form
a low-technology advisory committee to press the state’s
Resource Recovery Authority to take an even-handed view of
the alternative approach to using waste. And, a lobbying coalition in New York (led by county
environmental managers in Ulster and Westchester Counties)
convinced that state’s legislature to direct — in
1978 — $1 million of the $175 million reserved for
resource recovery bonds exclusively to recycling projects.
Unfortunately, because of excessive restrictions on how the
funds could be spent, little of the money was actually used
by recyclers.

Fortunately, the more recent 1980 New York Resource
Recovery Act — thanks to the continued efforts of lobbyists —
allots $5 million to recycling and reduces the requirements
for eligibility.

Landfill Surcharges and Fees 

Landfill surcharges are the most recent approach to raising
capital for recycling projects. Two states have passed laws
requiring landfill users to pay such fees and the
legislation is just now taking effect. The Colorado law
allows landfill charges to be used for solid-waste
management, regardless of where or how it is done. (Before,
all the fees had to figure in the operating budget of the
landfill.)

Tim McClure — of Summit Recycling in Breckenridge,
Colorado — is waiting to see how his state’s approach
compares to a similar program in New Jersey. In Colorado
each county will control the transfer of landfill fees to
recycling projects. In New Jersey, on the other hand, a
state office will collect fees from 250 landfills and then
distribute the funds among local communities.

“Watching both states will give us a good opportunity to
determine which level of government is best able to conduct
this type of business,” McClure said. He’ll be reporting on
the comparative administrative costs in future issues of
Renews, which he edits for the Colorado Recycling
Cooperative Association.

The New Jersey Recycling Act has drawn national attention
because it’s the first to involve community-based recyclers
and environmentalists as well as government officials and
industry representatives. Under the plan, municipal and
private-sector recyclers can count on an annual cash flow
for five years: Communities will receive funds based upon
the amount of solid waste that they recycle annually.

Plans similar to New Jersey’s couldn’t come at a better time for
recyclers. Waste-to-energy plants, which burn
solids and directly compete with recycling, have just lost
large portions of their federal subsidies (a $29 to $50
billion Department of Energy plan has just been scuttled by
President Reagan). At the same time, high interest rates
and weak tax-exempt-bond markets have cut back private
investment in waste-to-energy schemes. As a result, the
prospects for incorporating recycling into an overall
waste-management program have never looked better!

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