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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > The Key to Recycling is Markets

If you amassed all the waste dumps, kindly called “landfills,” in the U.S.A. and totaled the acreage, they would cover an area larger than Rhode Island. Most are full or filling up rapidly; new land fills are very difficult to get passed environmental requirements and community opposition.

So the Big Word for the Nineties will be “Recycling.” Already more states are passing recycling laws to be applied to household and retail waste. In the District of Columbia, the first stage of mandatory recycling begins in October with paper separation. Next year, it covers cans and bottles. This is the same District which the bottling industry persuaded at the expenditure of millions of campaign dollars, to reject a bottle bill two years ago. So the pressure is on business and household consumers to separate their garbage and not on the creation of markets for recycled materials.

But markets are crucial for the potential of recycling to be realized. For energy to be saved and trees to be left standing and raw minerals, to be conserved, there has to be a marketplace where waste separators (often municipalities but also non-profit recycling groups) can be paid for their separated trash by businesses who then can transform trash into usable products.

Japan’s automobile industry used so much domestic and imported scrap from the U.S. that back in 1980 the quip was “This year’s Toyota is last year’s Buick.”

We are far behind Japan and many other nations in recycling our waste into new materials. By way of example, we recycle 10% of our newsprint; Japan turns around 90%.

Achieving stable markets means expanding demand to meet the burgeoning supply of recycled garbage. The dilemma is that when a community becomes successful in preparing waste for recycling, supply outstrips demand and the bottom falls out of the market.

For instance, many localities which were profiting from recycling programs just two or three months ago — receiving as much as $25 a ton for their newspapers, are now having to pay the same firms just to haul it away. Presently, in Groton, Connecticut, the town has to pay $15 a ton to have old newspapers taken away. Maryland’s comparatively advanced state recycling program has been on hold for the same reason.

In a few months, the Environmental Protection Agency’s recycling guidelines for each federal agency and department are slated to go into effect. But they won’t be implemented if red ink is spilled in the process. Again markets are needed.

Congressman Sam Gejdenson (D-CT) has a proposal. He has introduced H.R. 1691 which deals with 40% of the nation’s waste stream — paper and paper products. He would have the federal government impose an escalating tax on paper manufacturers, starting at three percent of the selling price, for any paper products that do not meet the recycled fibers content standards developed by the Environmental Protection Agency. This “non-compliance tax” will increase by one percent per year until it reaches twelve percent.

Congressman Gejdenson believes H.R. 1691 will “help create stronger and more stable markets for recycled paper.” But one other change is necessary. A moratorium on any new incinerators will stop the undermining of the recycling effort by stopping the burning of recyclable products and pouring air pollutants into out air and toxic ash into landfills. Incinerators devour the supply of waste products; they are incompatible with both a health community environment and a recycling, resource conserving society.