May 2008

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.

Pete Grogan

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 be used.

“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 recycling.”

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 paper.

“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.”­