Trucks and barges pile 52 million pounds of paper, cans, plastic and other trash daily onto a Staten Island dump, building the world’s biggest mountain of garbage toward a height rivaling the skyscrapers across the bay in Manhattan.
Much of that could be recycled, and New York officials have begun considering a plan to do so. Elsewhere, more and more communities are already recycling the trash their citizens throw out.
They have little choice. Although the New York dump is planned to be operated for 11 more years, a third of the nation’s 6,000 garbage dumps are expected to be closed within five years, forcing communities to find new ways to dispose of their refuse.
Every American man, woman and child generates 3.5 pounds of refuse a day--adding 160 million tons to the nation’s trash pile each year.
42% of Trash Is Paper
That pile holds 42% paper, 23% food and yard waste, 9.4% glass, 9.2% metals, 6.5% plastics and 9.9% other materials, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Ten states already--or soon will--require residents to separate newspapers, glass jars, milk cartons, tin cans or other discarded items for recycling trucks or bins. Legislators in 33 states are expected to consider plans to increase recycling this year.
“People don’t want incinerators or dumps near them, so they are beginning to force their elected officials to start recycling programs,” said Cynthia Pollock Shea, a senior researcher at Worldwatch Institute, a nonprofit organization that studies environmental issues.
Recycling is not new in the United States. During World War II, “everybody recycled,” said Barry Commoner, director of Queens College’s Center for the Biology of Natural Systems. “People even recycled rubber bands and string.”
10% of Refuse Recycled
But such conservation efforts mostly ended with the war. Now, only 10% of the nation’s garbage is recycled, compared to as much as 60% by some cities in Europe and Japan.
Studies say that as much as 86% of household trash could be recycled, and the EPA has set a goal of recycling 25% in four years.
The process of recycling is simple: separating usable products from the trash; processing them so they can be substituted for more expensive raw materials at manufacturing plants; and returning them to the marketplace as parts of new products.
It has not been so easy to put into effect. Some communities have had trouble finding buyers for discarded newspapers, glass or plastic; recycling programs require start-up funds; and, perhaps most important, people’s habit of throwing trash into only one container is difficult to change.
Still, experts predict that recycling will eventually become a part of the everyday infrastructure of cities and towns.
Recycling Growth Seen
“Today, trash trucks dominate waste hauling,” said Peter Grogan, director of material recovery for R. W. Beck and Associates, which has helped dozens of communities start recycling programs. “But, by the year 2010, we’re going to see as many recycling trucks as dump trucks, recycling centers as common as video shops . . . and recycling introduced in lesson plans in schools across the country.”
Among the communities now making it easier for residents to recycle trash, several are considered international models:
- Hamburg, N. Y., a Buffalo suburb, started a program in 1981 and says that 98% of its 3,350 households participate. “Unless they want to eat their garbage, they better separate it or we won’t pick it up,” said Ann Kankolenski, a public works department employee. She said 34% of the trash is recycled and nearly all the rest burned.
- Seattle residents already recycled 24% of their garbage before the city started its program last year, and the city is aiming for 60% in 10 years. Even steel garbage cans are being recycled.
- Wilton, N. H., officials say that a voluntary six-town program in southwestern New Hampshire has 70% participation. The program, started a decade ago, recycles 42% of the garbage brought to a center, burns 47% and buries 11%.
Even more is possible.
Keeps Worms in Basement
Connie Leach, Vermont’s recycling director, feeds her food scraps to worms.
“They eat everything up,” Leach said of the little red worms that are covered with peat moss in a basement box lined with plastic and newspapers. The worms’ digestive system allows them to eat the food quickly and, so far, it hasn’t attracted cockroaches or mice. “I’ve been very surprised at how well it works,” she said.
Leach, named Recycler of the Year in 1987 by the National Recycling Coalition, does not stop there. She recycles all her household waste except for some types of plastics, junk mail on high-grade paper and light bulbs. In a month, she throws out only two small bags.
Ed Steyh, Seattle’s administrator of garbage and recycling contracts, also goes to great lengths to recycle his trash.
He lives on an island in Puget Sound, where he can recycle only tin cans. So, on his ferry rides to work, he takes along newspapers, glass, aluminum cans and other items.
“I bring them to my in-laws and they recycle it with their things,” Steyh said.
Solid waste management companies are expanding into recycling also, creating more markets for recycled materials.
Getting on the Bandwagon
“Everyone is jumping on the bandwagon,” said Darlene Snow, recycling director for the National Solid Waste Management Assn., which represents 2,500 companies that handle half of the nation’s household waste and 95% of its industrial waste.
She said the industry approached recycling warily. “They had a routine, a routine without a lot of regulations. Then, all these (state) laws came,” she said. “What happened was that haulers nationwide were losing business to recycling.”
Now, industry seminars on the topic are full, she said.
The recycling movement has also put in jeopardy some proposed trash-to-energy incinerators. Plans for such incinerators have been shelved in Los Angeles, Seattle, Boston, Philadelphia and Austin, Tex.
Incinerators have been promoted as a way to produce energy and reduce the amount of garbage, but questions persist about their effect on air quality and on the disposal of the byproduct of ash laced with toxins.
N.Y. Incinerator Opposed
In 1983, New York City proposed what would be the world’s largest trash-to-energy incineration system. The project, which still needs federal and state permits, faces stiff opposition from environmentalists and neighborhood groups.
Environmentalists say the solution to the city’s garbage crisis should be aggressive recycling. Their goals are 60% in 10 years, 90% in 20 years. Currently, the city recycles less than 1% of its trash.
However, under legislation proposed earlier this month in New York City, mandatory recycling would be phased in over five years.
“The debate has now changed from ‘What are we going to do about the garbage crisis?’ to ‘How much can we recycle?’ ” said David Antonioli, a staff member of the New York Public Interest Research Group. “The Earth is not a dump.”