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Industry must participate in recycling

Four years after Florida adopted a law to reduce the growing mountains of garbage on our landscape, the people who are working hardest to recycle their waste are getting some of it thrown back in their faces.

Too often in cities and counties throughout the state recycling is working like this:

A consumer pulls a plastic bottle from the household garbage, deciding it should be saved. The bottle is either placed in a curbside recycling bin or carried to the nearest recycling center, and the city or county government gathers the materials for reuse.

When the cities and counties try to sell the plastic, though, they are forced to open their own wallets. They are forced to pay companies to haul off the materials _ materials that go not into recycled products but into stockpiles.

"It's kind of a false sense of security," Leon County Commissioner Gary Yordon said recently. "People fill up their green bin, they put it out on the curb, and they think they've done their duty. We need a commitment from corporate America."

The problem is an unintended consequence of the 1988 Solid Waste Management Act. The state, by requiring that every county increase its waste recycling, has flooded the market. In just the past two years, the statewide recycling rate for city garbage has increased from 4 to 21 percent. The market result is painfully revealed in a new survey by the Florida Public Interest Research Group (FPIRG). Not only are prices for recycled materials falling dramatically statewide, but they fluctuate greatly from area to area and from month to month according to the types of contracts each city or county has with commodities buyers and recycling companies. Here are a few examples:

In St. Petersburg, the city is paying $125 a ton to get rid of its recycled plastic, $25 a ton for newsprint and $10 a ton for office paper. Only recycled aluminum is bringing a significant return, currently selling for roughly $660 a ton.

In Hillsborough, the county is paying roughly $20 a ton to get rid of plastic, about $13 a ton for brown and green glass, and roughly $5 to $10 for each ton of newsprint. It, too, is currently able to sell aluminum, at about $480 a ton.

In Pasco, the experience is better, with the county receiving about $3.75 for each ton of newsprint, $50 for each ton of clear glass and $760 per ton of aluminum. Still, it is currently paying about $20 a ton to haul off its plastic.

FPIRG, an environmental and consumer group supported by college campuses, calls the lack of recycling markets the "weak link" in the recycling chain, and its new study offers compelling logic. Says FPIRG: "Currently, solid waste disposal and recycling markets are distorted because the original producers of packaging waste _ the industries that make packaging design decisions and produce packaging _ bear none of the environmental or economic burdens of disposal or recycling. These costs are borne almost entirely by local government and, by extension, by taxpayers and ratepayers."

The 1988 law, in fact, almost assures the imbalance. It mandates that cities and counties recycle 30 percent of their waste by 1995, a provision that has led to millions of dollars of public investment in recycling equipment, including trucks, bins, additional manpower and even curbside collection systems. It forces consumers, who throw away 19-million tons of garbage each year in Florida, to confront their wasteful habits and think twice about what they put in their own garbage pails. Yet, in the end, the law gives manufacturers no obligation to put recycled materials in their products.

Asks FPIRG executive director Ann Whitfield: "How can we in good conscience ask everyone else to participate in recycling but not ask industry?"

How can we? The solution is not hard to see. The state could spur the market by requiring that manufacturers use a certain percentage of recycled materials in their products. The percentage could be reasonably established, based on current technology and availability of resources, and the requirement itself would help change the marketplace and make recycled materials valuable.

At least 13 other states already do it, establishing recycled content standards for newsprint, packaging and other commodities. (About 39 percent of the newsprint the Times currently uses is recycled material.) Oregon is requiring that glass containers have at least 50 percent recycled content by the year 2000, plastic containers at least 25 percent recycled content by 1995. Even some industry officials are recognizing the need. Said a recent editorial in Plastics Engineering: "We might not care for the government's delivering a mandate, but it may be the only way to enforce and stimulate the demand-side of plastics recycling."

Most reasonable people would agree with that assessment. But in Florida the Legislature is controlled by lobbyists who don't get paid for being reasonable, and those industry lobbyists are kicking up a storm about recycled content requirements.

In the past session of the Legislature, they were able to fight off changes by calling for a study commission. For this coming year, they again are asking for more study.

Don't be fooled. These industry representatives aren't really looking for a reasoned approach; they're looking for none at all. Says Jodi Chase, a lobbyist for Associated Industries of Florida: "Our entire national economy since the Colonial days has been based on supply and demand. It is not based on government forcing you to buy something or not to buy something." Translation: Let the market control.

The problem is that market forces, in this case, are not effective. If they were, the state would never have had to pass a law requiring consumers to stop throwing away so much, and Americans wouldn't create twice as much garbage, per capita, as the Europeans or the Japanese.

The truth is that America is a throwaway society, and it will take the help of everyone _ consumers, governments and manufacturers _ to reverse that trend. The consumers who now are trying to meet that challenge need to be assured their work is not in vain.

Jon East is an editorial writer for the Times.

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