Putting out the trash just isn't what it used to be.
For a growing number of Americans, trash night involves more than just hauling a garbage can out to the curb. In scores of communities across the country now operating ''curbside recyling'' programs, residents are separating out glass, aluminum, and newspapers for special trash pickups.
Although recycling has long been championed by environmentalists as a way to conserve natural resources, the movement's latest impetus has been economic: As more cities are faced with a shortage of crucial landfill space and costly long hauls to faraway dumps, they are searching for trash disposal alternatives. At least one answer, they have found, lies in recycling.
According to one of the latest national tallies, a 1979 Environmental Protection Agency survey, the number of curbside recycling programs across the country rose from 118 in August 1974, to 218 in May 1978. That total is expected to continue rising, say waste experts.
In California, for example, where some 24 million residents generate 46 million tons of garbage each year (with a disposal cost of $600 million), the state's Solid Waste Management Board (SWMB) has helped 32 cities start curbside recycling programs in the past three years. Unlike ''buy-back'' or ''drop-off'' centers, where individuals bring recyclable materials in, curbside programs operate like a regular residential trash pickup, with special trucks hauling off the separated materials.
''Clearly, the concept is growing like crazy in California,'' says SWMB chairman Terry Trumbull. Mr. Trumbull, who has waged a public awareness campaign on what he has called California's garbage crisis, estimates the state's curbside recycling programs now involve 1.5 million residents, up from 50,000 in 1979.
Ironically, the latest city to consider such a program is Los Angeles, where Sam Yorty got elected mayor 20 years ago by promising residents that he would abolish the city's trash separation law - a promise he carried out during in his first term.
''We recognize the political risks involved,'' says Councilwoman Joy Picus, who chairs the committee responsible for recommending that the city consider a pilot project involving 15,000 homes in an affluent section of West Los Angeles.
''But the times and people have changed,'' she continues, citing an informal survey of her council district.
Unlike the waste-to-energy trash burning facilities that several US cities are considering to reduce garbage volume, recycling programs are relatively cheap and easy to implement. Recycling, however, is unlikely to be the only answer for a community, say waste experts.
Scavenging, for example, poses a challenge. Private recyclers must have a guaranteed flow of trash to make profits.
Even more important is the establishing markets for recyclable materials. California's SWMB plans a major ''buy recycled'' campaign this year.
Not all curbside programs have done as well as hoped. In Northern California's Marin County, business is hurt by a lack of public awareness and current low prices for recycled materials.
In Palo Alto, however, the city estimates that 65 percent of its residents are involved in the curbside program.