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EARTHWATCH

County Is Learning to Mix Business, Environmentalism : Movement is part of a worldwide trend. Local officials want to use waste as a source of raw materials for industry.

August 19, 1993|RICHARD KAHLENBERG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

I just got back from Paris where I was looking into the latest in environmental matters, among other things. I found a lot to report. And when I got back, I found that much of what was going on there is already happening here.

Both their leaders and our leaders have discovered that the environment means business. Literally. Let's consider recycling as an example. Our county's government last week officially turned the corner and, as a byproduct of the Weldon Canyon fracas, issued some reports declaring trash to be "a valuable commodity that drives economic development."

While I was in France, their leaders did something similar, but on a national scale, by appointing an environmentalist to be a leading trade representative; a serious matter, considering he isn't even of the same political party as the current business-oriented administration.

This is part of a worldwide trend toward integrating business practice with environmental policy. This involves changing the emphasis from one based on toxic cops busting polluters to one where the waste stream--even a toxic waste dump--is mined for raw materials.

For instance, while I was in France they shut down their last iron ore mine because their steel industry is switching to making products from scrap steel, which used to be thrown away--they had their roadside car cemeteries just like we did.

While I was there I saw reports on national TV of ore workers protesting the mine closings. For the past decade local steel mills had been switching to modern methods that require ever more scrap steel, even including tin cans.

The metal gets purer each time it's melted down--actually an improvement over metal made from virgin ore, which has various impurities. Also the ore available in France had become ever more expensive because they were running out of the high-grade variety.

If you wonder if this process is happening in the United States--sit is. Consider the following: we make 8 million cars a year and junk exactly the same number, according to the chairman of Nucor Steel. But the American steel industry melts down 10 million cars a year to turn into new ingots and I-beams, he said.

Where do the extra 2 million cars come from? Imported cars. Yes, we are the roach motel of steel recycling. The Toyotas and Mercedes come into the country but they don't go out. The demand for scrap steel, according to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries Inc., has reached the point that smelters are collecting nearly every second tin can--they are actually made of steel with a thin coat of tin--from the waste stream.

We've never had an iron ore industry in Ventura County, so we won't have angry workers if we get on the recycling bandwagon. Au contraire --we'll be creating jobs, according to the reasoning in a newly released series of county reports. One has a rather grandiose title, "Rethinking Waste--A Plan for the 21st Century," but it's exciting to read its contents, a clear call for shifting the way we handle waste from being a nuisance to a source of raw materials for industry.

The reports were presented in a public meeting where Ventura County Supervisor Maggie Kildee and Ojai Mayor Bob McKinney spoke.

Coincidentally, that very day the Wall Street Journal had a front page story about several cities on the East Coast that were experiencing a trash shortage related to the success of their recycling programs. After the recyclables had been removed, there wasn't enough left on the trucks to feed the big expensive trash burning facilities that had been installed there for generating electricity.

A month ago, that same paper was carrying stories that recycling programs were producing a glut of recyclables. My point is that garbage has become a commodity. "Waste As a Commodity" is actually the title of one of the Ventura County reports.

As with any commodity--even the recycled newsprint out of which half of today's paper was made--prices can fluctuate wildly. Recyclables offer business and manufacturing opportunities. That's what was being brought to the public's attention at this meeting last week.

It turns out that it is much cheaper for county government to reduce trash just by offering the public a recycling option, and that it is even possible to make money selling the stuff.

A sign of the times is that every place in America where there's a municipal curbside recycling program, there's also a problem with scavengers getting there before the city pickup truck.

And to think that in this county we came close to deciding to just go on burying the stuff.

* WHERE AND WHEN

For copies of "A Plan for the 21st Century" and other reports on local recyclables as a commodity for manufacturing and export call Craig Phillips at the Ventura County Solid Waste Management Department at 648-9244.

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