The plastics recycling war is over. We should declare victory and put the money into cancer research. America has a curbside plastics recycling infrastructure in place that includes more than 7,000 communities. With these sophisticated programs, the level of plastics recycling is about 22 percent and won't increase greatly for each new dollar spent. The recycling rate in the United States is about the same as that in Germany, which spends 10 times the amount on recycling, yet collects plastics it often cannot recycle domestically.
Manufacturers and leading environmentalists are realizing that increased government involvement in recycling is losing its payoff. More regulations will not fill curbside containers any faster. Even environmental activist Anna Bramwell, author of Ecology in the 20th Century, notes in the Feb. 20 New Republic magazine that it is her ``growing belief that any attempt to control resource use by means of state planning is bound to fail.''
Some of our more astute politicians already have come to this conclusion. In both this country and Germany, government funding of recycling programs seems to have peaked. There is an interesting trend to tax plastics of the not-so-regularly recycled variety - such as polypropylene, mixed plastics and polystyrene - and put the proceeds into the general fund - not into an increased effort to recycle those plastics.
In Florida, the advance disposal fee of 2 cents per plastic bottle is bringing revenue into the state's general coffers, but faces a review by voters this year. As a sign that it may be repealed, a survey of Florida's voters shows many seriously waver in their support of this tax when told its ultimate destination is not recycling programs. A dozen other states are considering similar measures.
In Germany, Frankfurt is facing a lawsuit from McDonald's over the city's tax of as much as 25 cents per plate on one-way cutlery and plates. This is a tax destined only for general city use, not for recycling.
McDonald's responds that the tax will increase sales prices in Frankfurt by 10-15 percent.
Such laws make plastics an expensive scapegoat for what is really a litter problem, but do little to encourage or facilitate greater plastics recycling. They also thwart any effort by manufacturers to increase their use of recycled resin - knowing it will only be taxed again.
Instead, for those serious about waste reduction, there are a tremendous number of private sector options to recycling and its classic demonstration of diminishing marginal returns. The most substantive are refilling the bottles already made, which is out-and-out more cost effective than collecting, sorting and regrinding one-ways.
The slippery slope is source reduction, the most environmentally friendly means of cutting landfill and packaging waste. A uniform, industry-led change in the way the contents of source-reduced packages are measured - and thus, valued - is necessary to promote this; for example, pricing detergents in terms of laundry loads per package instead of cost per ounce of detergent.
But it is hard to convince consumers good things come in smaller packages they must throw away when empty. The marketer must believe the prestige of its original product does not shrink in perceived stature as the size of its package similarly shrinks.
Recycling interest may fall with prices, too. Let's not wait for that to happen, but instead invoke the alternatives now.
King is Plastics News' East Coast reporter, based in Washington.