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Recycling revolution loses its fervor

California, the recycling leader, will fall short of its goal to cutlandfill trash by 50 percent.

It's a real-life repeat of the candy-factory scene from "I Love Lucy," where Lucy and Ethel have the impossible job of boxing chocolates from an ever-faster moving conveyor belt.

Here at the Burbank Recycle Center, the conveyor carries a torrent of trash while 17 attendants - wearing dust masks and rubber gloves - pluck and toss recyclable bottles, cans, and paper into bins before the remaining trash cascades into a dumpster.

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With 2000 just weeks away, the state that led the American parade to recycling is now racing to meet what some see as impossible goal - a mandated 50 percent reduction from 1990 levels of trash it sends to landfills.

In many ways, recycling is a benchmark for America's conservationist ethic, touching everyday life through soda-bottle refunds and blue curb-side collection bins. California is in fact doing better than the rest of the nation, but the state's 33 percent reduction is far below its ambitious goals.

A host of factors, including a faster stream of trash generated by a booming economy, are to blame. But the shortfall here has offered lessons for the national recycling effort, and has also ignited debate about how California - and the country - can regain lost momentum. "California has changed the way Americans in every state view solid waste by leading the country out of a one-way system of putting trash in landfills," says Dan Eaton, chairman of the California Integrated Waste Management Board. "What we've learned about what does and doesn't work and why is serving as the groundwork for others."

The Golden State's landmark law was passed in 1989 primarily because California was running out of landfill space. It required every city and county to reduce its waste 25 percent by 1995 and 50 percent by 2000.

At the time, the new law was held up as a model, but implementation ran into problems. Rural communities needed different programs from suburbs or desert areas. Corporations not covered by the law only participated voluntarily. And the public had to be educated, for instance, about how to properly answer: "paper or plastic?"

"One-size-fits all solutions did not work," says Mr. Eaton. "Not everything was thought of that needed to be, and there was a natural unease over the unknown."

The law was also underfunded, which meant localities usually passed on to residents costs for curb-side pick-up and the building of recycling facilities. Then, a recession during the early '90s meant most communities were strapped for cash.

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In this setting, the question of defining which waste is covered by law, as well as how to measure a jurisdiction's compliance, became difficult. "It became totally time consuming spending our time counting beans rather than implementing new programs," says Lisa Wood, spokeswoman of the San Diego district.

Halting progress

Still, the state made progress. By 1995, 85 percent of California districts were in compliance with the law's halfway mark of 25 percent. But the resurgence of the economy has produced an influx authorities were not prepared for.

"The sheer ... volume has contributed to a waste stream equal to a 100-year flood," says Eaton.

Today, two California communities graphically illustrate California's successes and failures.

Here in Burbank, local authorities passed a recycling program in 1982, well ahead of the rest of the state. The city added a state-of-the-art recycling facility in 1991, and later quadrupled the amount of recyclables collected by allowing residents to mix paper, glass, and plastic in oversized bins left on the curb.

"We have reached a phenomenal rate of recycling [about 62 percent] because of public backing and commitment," says Sylvia Glazer, the program's director.

Across town in West Covina, recycling director Steve Samaniego says his biggest problem in reaching the 50 percent mandate is creating public awareness. Beyond that, he needs rules requiring that construction contractors recycle and use recyclable building materials.

"When it comes down to votes about these programs, I need to let the public know when the vote comes up and how it's going to impact the community," says Mr. Samaniego. "But first I need public awareness to get the money to create more awareness."

That awareness of what's being done and what needs to be done is a stumbling block nationwide, experts say. In 1960, each American threw away an average of 2.5 pounds of refuse a day. In 1980, it rose to 3.3 pounds, in 1990 to 3.7 pounds, and in 1997 dropped to 3.2 pounds.

"While Americans are recycling more and more, we are also generating more [trash] so the amount of land filling is not going down nationally as we hoped," says Rick Best, policy director for Californians Against Waste.

The cutting edge of efforts in recycling these days, he says, is getting manufacturers to cut the amount of trash they generate, and also to use more secondary or recycled materials.

Despite falling short of its goal, California's achievement of cutting waste by 33 percent (the national average is 28 percent) is a testament to the strong 1989 law, observers say. The state hasn't yet imposed fines on localities, but the law authorizes penalties up to $10,000 per day.

Other incentives

Some states are trying to create other incentives as well. Minnesota is considering a law that will ban all dumping into landfills. Indeed, "zero waste" has become the buzz word for many state activists, though legislation to mandate the goal is not yet forthcoming. Besides, say others, the only way to make a real impact is to attack the issue of recycling on the federal level.

"It's difficult to craft rules on a state-by-state basis," says Lynn Landes, director of Zero Waste America. "The waste and recycling industry would have a much better time of it complying with one federal standard."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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