While the thought of national legislation affecting plastics recycling in the United States may be just that - a thought and not a reality - other countries are steaming ahead with ambitious plans. Germany, in particular, sees itself as leading the way with its series of laws, first effective in 1991, that mandate industry-financed collection, distribution and disposal of plastics.
What Germany has done, critics charge, is create an immense bureaucratic system that collects more plastic waste than can be recycled internally, placing severe limits on the system's effectiveness.
With a more restrictive law going into effect in July, requiring 64 percent of all plastic packaging to be recycled, the future of the German system is clouded.
In Japan, where landfill space is even more limited than in Europe, the national parliament has been given a sweeping plan for national recycling. The plan faces some implementation problems, chiefly the need to convince a skeptical public to accept more waste-to-energy incineration. But, overall, the proposal seems to avoid a heavy-handed bureaucratic approach.
As explained by backers recently, the Japanese plan would assign responsibility for recycling throughout society, from the ordinary householder to the federal government, and seeks active participation from all parties.
The ordinary citizen, under the system, would be responsible for recycling his or her own waste, but also for determining, as part of his community, how to dispose of that waste.
Municipalities would choose conventional mechanical recycling or incineration coupled with energy recovery or feedstock recycling. The proposed system also would require the municipalities to be responsible for the collection of wastes.
The only level at which the federal government would be involved in the waste disposal process would be in monitoring the performance of the system, and in coordinating, along with manufacturers, the cost of the program.
The system, even if approved by July, would not take effect for two years, and would not be fully in place until near the turn of the century, allowing a good deal of time to work out problems that inevitably will crop up.
What the Japanese proposal does seem to avoid is the construction of a ponderous and inefficient bureaucracy, with almost dictatorial powers, and independence from either the industry or the government. Emphasis is placed on involving all levels of society, and on negotiating ways in which citizen and industry alike can function and succeed in the overall purpose.
It is an intriguing experiment in sharing burdens, and one from which nations that are debating the recycling, reuse, and source reduction issue might be able to learn.
Ford is a Plastics News reporter based in Akron, Ohio