The Great Illusion (cont.)

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It also means that RIRRC doesn’t wait for the market to recover before it moves materials. RIRRC took a week’s worth of losses—$5 or $10 per ton for paper instead of $150—because moving the material was more important than the price.

But Robert Reed of Recology, which is the trash collector for San Francisco, says a single-stream program ensures that recyclables aren’t being trashed.

Single-stream recycling is where all materials are collected together, so you don’t have to separate, say, bottles from paper. This method makes it easy for you to recycle and encourages that more products will be recycled and not thrown away, which is the point. But, as prices for recyclables dropped, some worried that single-stream materials were not of a high enough quality to get the attention of buyers in a tight market. Although San Francisco managed to do just fine with single-stream recycling, Kite says it’s not an ideal system when prices for recycled materials drop. And, in fact, the concept of single-stream recycling—that it makes it easier for you to recycle more—means that these types of programs are hit harder when markets go south because they have more materials to move. What’s even worse is that sometimes those materials are considered lower quality than those that come from a dual-stream facility. Paper, for instance, can sometimes get contaminated by plastics and metals at the processing plant.

“We separate paper from plastic, metal and so on, so we have a very clean stream, and our customers are assured of the quality of our materials,” Kite says.

In 11 states—California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Oregon and Vermont—beverage-container deposit laws are a decent guarantee that your bottles are being recycled. Because bottles cost distributors directly up to 13 cents per bottle (to encourage recycling), there’s a huge incentive for them to recycle the returned containers to recoup part of their money. And it doesn’t hurt that you get your portion of the deposit (5 to 10 cents per container) back if you recycle.

Of bigger benefit to consumers, however, are unclaimed deposits—deposit money that’s not collected by consumers. These deposits amount to millions of dollars per year, according to Container Recycling Institute, and in most states these deposits, unfortunately, remain the property of distributors and bottlers. But in California, Hawaii, Massachusetts and Michigan unclaimed deposit money goes to the state, which uses it to fund environmental programs.

A report on the efficacy of New York’s bottle bill, conducted by Franklin Associates Ltd., found that recycling rates increased dramatically after the bill’s passage—to 82 percent from 18 percent for aluminum cans; to 79 percent from 5 percent for glass bottles; and to 57 percent from 1 percent for PET bottles. The study estimated an annual reduction of solid-waste tonnage of 650,000 tons, at a savings to taxpayers of $19 million a year. Now that’s contributing to society as a whole.

WHAT NOW? Although the recycling market has stabilized—albeit much lower than where it had been—the effects of the downturn will be felt well into the coming year. And some municipalities are taking it out on their recycling programs—and you. Chicago announced in October 2009 that it would put the brakes on its fledgling blue-cart curbside recycling program and would decrease its recycling pick-up from once a week to once every 3 weeks. Atlanta made a similar move, and now residents are complaining that they’re running out of space to store recyclables in between pick-ups.

Smaller cities and towns are facing elimination of curbside recycling programs. Southeastern Public Service Authority, which serves eight cities and counties in southeastern Virginia, announced in September 2009 that it would discontinue its recycling programs to save money. It’s allowing the cities and towns that it served to set up contracts with third-party companies to do the job—their job—for them.

Although recycling is affected by the same market fluctuations as other businesses, consumers think of recycling as a public trust. Let’s hope that those who are in the recycling business can successfully regain our trust.

Amy Westervelt writes about green and environmental policy for numerous publications and Web sites. She also is the managing editor of Earth Island Journal.

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