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Garbage Piles Up : Talking Trash: Cities Turning to Recycling

June 03, 1989|J. MICHAEL KENNEDY | Times Staff Writer

SEATTLE — Bill Webb's green truck is a familiar sight around here. It's the one with all the bins in the back.

Each day, he drives down Seattle's streets, picking up plastic crates filled with cans and paper and glass and, in some areas, plastic. Webb works for a recycling company, and that makes him and his job a hot item, indeed.

"I love this route," said Webb, dumping another crate of cans into his truck. "They're really dedicated."

Across town, Don Dentz leads the way through a cavernous warehouse that is filled with trash. The huge garbage pile is being scooped onto a conveyor belt, where men pick through for aluminum cans and giant sifters drop glass chunks into metal receptacles. Bins are filled with thousands of milk jugs and soft drink bottles that have been plucked from the rubbish; the waste paper is in another pile.

Will Be Recycled

Much of the separated trash will be recycled.

Taken together, the two systems represent Seattle's effort to reuse its own waste and, thus far, the program has been a huge success.

In the northern half of the city, residents separate different recyclables into bins, while in the southern half they put all their reclaimable refuse in one container. The city had expected a 35% sign-up rate for both programs by the end of 1988, the first year of the recycling operation. Instead, more than 65% of the city's residents--close to 100,000 households--are participating, chief among the reasons being cheaper garbage bills for those who recycle.

"It is definitely one of the more successful programs," said Ginny Stevenson, a spokeswoman for Seattle Solid Waste Utility.

While Seattle is held up as one of the model cities in the world of recycling, it is hardly an isolated case these days. Pushed by improving economics and by the effects of too much trash and no place to put it, recycling is sweeping the country.

Reclaiming materials is not a new science. During World War II, people collected rubber and aluminum for use in the war effort. During the '60s, the prime reason for recycling was to slow down the use of virgin materials, such as aluminum and timber. But now, the problems are more massive.

This country is awash in garbage, to the tune of 160 million tons a year, and only 10% of it is being recycled. The entire northeast quadrant of the United States is in its last gasp of landfill capacity, and the Environmental Protection Agency predicts that most landfills throughout the United States will be filled within 10 years. A number of states, such as New Jersey, must export large amounts of their trash to other parts of the country for disposal.

Given the crisis proportions of the garbage scene, the recycling boom is a natural outgrowth of necessity for a country that is at the bottom of the heap among industrialized nations when it comes to reusing its trash.

'Hundreds of Ideas'

"It seems like every day, there's some new article about a place that's starting to recycle," said Joe Salamando, editor of Recycling Times, a newspaper that reports on recycling markets. "There are literally hundreds of ideas being tried. It's an interesting time to be in this business."

One measure of how recycling is spreading is the growing number of communities being serviced by the two big names in garbage disposal: Waste Management Inc. of Oakbrook, Ill., and BFI of Houston. Waste Management now recycles the trash from 900,000 homes and BFI is second with 500,000. Several years ago, the two companies provided the service for only a relative handful of homes. BFI, for instance, only serviced 40,000 homes a year ago.

"We are very aggressively selling recycling as a municipal service," said Peter Block, a BFI spokesman. "We have seen phenomenal growth in this area in the last 18 to 20 months. We're in it because we expect to make money. We're in it to stay."

In the past, recycling efforts frequently stumbled because they were not cost effective. Not only was it expensive to collect and separate the usable items, but the cost of processing them into other goods often made them uncompetitive with virgin materials. As the cost of landfills has increased, however, recycling has become a more viable alternative.

Landfill Costs

For example, landfill costs recently went from $10 a ton to $31.50 a ton in Seattle, and it cost another $76 million to close off two landfills here when they had reached their capacity.

There are still many problems with recycling goods. The market for recycled newsprint, for example, fluctuates wildly. But many cities simply have no other choice.

In fact, it is now difficult to keep up with the number of cities that are either already recycling or gearing up to do so. There are hundreds of them, from small communities to large cities.

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