Recycling in America — plenty of room for improvement
While the collection of solid waste across the United
States is uniform, the collection of recyclables is not and there is
room for dramatic improvement, says Pete Grogan, manager, Market Development
for Containerboard and Recycling for Weyerhaeuser Company.
Grogan, a long-time advocate of recycling, stresses that states lagging
behind in recycling must join those that have aggressive and effective
recycling programs to help protect the environment, reduce solid waste
management costs and to establish a recycling infrastructure that will
create jobs and generate government revenue.
His concerns are based on the survey that is done by Bio-Cycle Magazine
every two years that assesses on a state-by-state basis how much material
is being recycled, composted, diverted and being disposed of.
“We see states that have good recovery diversion rates like California,
Minnesota, Washington and Oregon,” says Grogan, who in his 32-year career
in waste management, has been an analyst with R.W. Beck and Associates
and played a key role in the creation of the recycling program in Boulder,
Colorado, “we also see states with poor recovery diversion rates such
as Colorado, New Mexico, Georgia and Alabama.”
The American Forest and Paper Association’s (AF&PA) Community Survey
(revised every two years) shows that 55 percent of Americans residing
in single-family homes and in some cases, apartments with seven units,
have access to residential curbside recycling.
But Grogan notes that having the service does not guarantee that it will
“The aluminum industry reports that only 50 percent of the population
that has curbside recycling service, uses it,” he says, “and when you
factor in people that drop off material and so on, I would guesstimate
that 30 to 35 percent of Americans participate in some form of residential
Expanding recycling, he says, must include large-scale apartments and
condominiums and require all residents of a city or county to participate,
as well as rural areas.
“I don’t always buy the argument that because it is a rural community,
that you cannot provide service,” says Grogan. “They get trash collection
service and therefore they could have a recycling service.
“A lot of apartments and condo buildings do not have recycling and there
are a variety of reasons for it, including the fact that one system does
not fit all like it does for in a single-family system,” he adds. In
the single-family home situation, we have friendly peer pressure – you
don’t want to be the only one on the block not participating.
“But in an apartment complex, where you would be dropping material off
in a central location, you don’t have that ability to create that peer
group pressure,” he adds. “This is why you are seeing the movement in
the Vancouver, British Columbia’s and Seattle’s of the world where they
have realized that it is time to engage that population and the population
at large and they have gone to mandatory recycling.”
Grogan supports mandatory recycling and appreciates Seattle’s legislation
that requires mandatory recycling (brought in two years ago) on the part
of residents, commerce, institutions and industry.
“You will recycle or there will be consequences,” he says. “The mayor
of Seattle tells his taxpayers every year that he saves them millions
of dollars because of their progressive and aggressive recycling and
composting programs. In time, we are going to see more of that as everybody
tunes into the fact that recycling is one of the most climate-friendly
activities on earth.”
Many of nation’s large cities, as well as small towns, do not have recycling
bins to ensure that residents can recycle “on the go.”
But Grogan says that the lack of recycling bins does not tell the full
story, citing the example of New York City.
“Transient audiences are very difficult to engage, whether they be on
the street, at festivals or stadiums, due to the lack of friendly group
pressure, signage and the need to have containers that are accessible
and available,” he says, “but a lot of recycling in New York City takes
place behind the scenes. We believe office paper recovery to be in the
range of 55 percent or higher and that is higher than the national average.
New York City’s Department of Sanitation is dedicated to doing a good
job. We need to engage people at home or at work. Once you engage there,
then we have a shot at engaging them in other locations.
“Is enough being done in relation to all the cities in America that are
currently not providing services? Absolutely not. When you look at the
latest report out of Colorado, it seems to make the case that only 25
percent of the households in the state have recycling services. We are
not seeing the government leadership that we are going to need to see
on the issue in relation to energy and resource savings.”
In terms of commercial and industrial recycling rates, Grogan notes that
there are successes, such as the 75 percent recovery rate for corrugated
“We have an excellent infrastructure in place,” he says, “and thousands
of recyclers providing that service and many end-use mill groups like
Weyerhaeuser making use of that material to produce new recycled content.
There are still some areas where we could acquire more material, typically
in small retail outlets and homes.”
In addition to implementing residential recycling programs with RW Beck,
Grogan was the co-founder and executive director of the Eco-Cycle program
in Boulder, a recycling program that has been serving the residential
and commercial sectors since 1976.
“It’s one of the most successful non-profit recycling organizations in
North America,” he says.
Like others, Grogan says there is a correlation between land values and
higher levels of recycling.
“Eco-Cycle is in a unique situation because here we have this gem of
a recycling program in Boulder County,” he says, “while the rest of Colorado
has not progressed into effective recycling programs because land filling
is so cheap.”
Land values in New England and Florida are high, as well as the west
coast states of Oregon, Washington and California. Grogan stresses that
states such as Oregon, Washington, California and Minnesota also have
good rates due to a strong “green” ethic.
While not expecting any legislative support from the federal government,
Grogan says that state and municipal government leadership is essential
to implementing good recycling programs.
“It’s not a coincidence that Oregon has one of the best recycling rates
in the country and maybe the #1 recycling state,” he says. “In 1983 they
passed into law the Recycling Opportunity Act that required, among other
things, that every city with 4,000 people or more had to provide residential
recycling. You could do the exact same thing with Colorado, New Mexico
(ranked 43rd in terms of recycling) and Georgia and in a very short period
of time, get to the same recovery level.
“The approach that was taken in Oregon was replicated in Pennsylvania
and some other place,” he adds. “The fundamental problem here is that
many Americans, including public officials, seem to live in a fantasy
world where they think resources and energy are limitless.”