MIDDLETOWN, N.J. — A woman strolls through a garden on a sunny day just a sea squall away from the Atlantic shore. She stops at the end of a stone path that snakes through 60 acres of fabulous flora, south Jersey's snappy answer to Shangri-la.
It's time to check out the trash.
A dozen bins and barrels with names like "The Earth Machine" and "Presto Bin" are arranged in a semicircle. These are your new recycling containers for the coming century. They represent the next step, the quantum leap in grass-roots garbage reduction. They are designed to turn your potato peels, half-eaten jalapenos and other organic trash into a compost darker than chocolate and more nutrient-rich than the priciest of potting soils. A compact model powered by worms fits nicely under the kitchen sink.
Are you ready for this?
Food waste and wasted food--Americans chuck more chow into the trash than anyone else--have become one of recycling's new frontiers. San Francisco this year becomes the first major U.S. city to offer curbside recycling of all uneaten edibles, from prosciutto di Parma to Spam on sourdough. New York prisons recycle gruel batted away by finicky felons. Maine makes it mandatory for schools to keep kids from hurling their lime Jell-O into bins bound for landfills, if not at each other.
And more communities are embracing programs like the one here in Monmouth County, which has subsidized the sale of 5,000 backyard composters in the past five years. It has enlisted 70 "master composters" to staff hotlines so people can rot their garbage with odor-free elan and rake it back into the planet as a healthy soil enhancement, cutting the weight of their curbside waste by a quarter or more.
This isn't quite an act of environmental altruism, however, but a movement born of desperation, one aimed at recycling the concept of recycling. After a decade in which people were conditioned to rinse their bottles, bundle their papers and collect their cans, the rise of recycling as we know it has stopped.
California, New Jersey and 11 other states that set 2000 recycling goals are facing a harsh turn-of-the-century truth: Time's up, and they aren't even close. In California, 80% of the municipalities face $10,000-a-day fines unless they drastically slash their trash before this year ends.
"You're going to get more and more of an anxiety level as we get closer and closer," says Dan Eaton, chairman of the California Integrated Waste Management Board.
California--once known as a mean, green, keen-to-be-clean machine--expects its first drop in dump diversion since recycling became law in 1989, once waste managers untangle the often fanciful trash tallies of every town, some of which claim to recycle 120% of their garbage. New Jersey, which invented statewide curbside recycling, felt its first dip in landfill diversion in 1998. Even in states such as New York, which claim a modest uptick, the growth is the lowest ever.
As a result, a protean struggle to reanimate the movement is fixated on finding new things for Americans to recycle, from city sludge to obsolete semiconductors to the wreckage of yesterday's pasta disaster.
Which is why waste managers from elsewhere seek out meccas like Middletown and other middle-class towns in Monmouth, long a state leader in everyday environmentalism. It has a subculture of salvagers who recycle rainwater, beam with delight at the sheer height of their home compost heaps and even slip into supermarket dumpsters to rescue and rot outdated groceries bound for landfills.
Their serenely determined leader is county recycling coordinator Virginia Lamb, who hauls boxes of worms to schools so kids can bond with slimy invertebrates who really can help with the chores. She promotes the joys of composting with a jaunty panache that would make Martha Stewart green with ivy.
Yet in a sign reflective of recycling's hard times, the amount of trash that the county diverted from landfills--after eclipsing the magic 50% figure by mid-decade--fell to 43% in 1997, the last year anybody had trustworthy numbers.
"It's really sad. It came along 10 years ago and everybody loved recycling. And then it lost some of its glamour," says Lamb, standing in front of the impeccably arranged composting exhibit in the county's Deep Cut Botanical Gardens, an old estate of the late mobster Vito Genovese.
A Business, and a Rough One at That
Once a cause, recycling has become a business, and business right now stinks like week-old orange roughy. Oil prices were so low for years that virgin plastic costs less than recycled plastic. This is why Coca-Cola Co. reneged on a promise to recycle when it began abandoning glass bottles, and why Miller Brewing Co. has stunned the recycling world by selling beer in a plastic bottle that not only isn't recycled, but isn't easily recyclable.
"Markets right now are horrible," says Nora Goldstein, editor of BioCycle, a recycling trade journal.