Faced with tightening budgets, an ``institutionalization'' of recycling, and a greater understanding by the private sector of how to make money from recyclables, states are giving their recycling subsidies a second look. But is the shift in budget priorities having an effect on the recycling process? It may be too early to tell, but plastics recyclers seem optimistic that the effects of reduced funding on the amount they process will be minimal.
And with the refocusing of state priorities from recycling grants to other pressing environmental needs, will legislators do as one Wisconsin business leader predicts and pass more manufacturers' responsibility - ``you made it, you take it'' - laws?
Elizabeth Burger, assistant marketing manager for the Clean Washington Center, which is the state's environment department, summed up the national picture by saying, ``The money going into collection is dropping, yet there is some expansion in collection.''
No reliable nationwide statistics on the amount of funding decreases has been assembled, said Edgar Miller, director of policy and programs for the National Recycling Coalition in Arlington, Va. Miller is more con-cerned with increasing the level of private investment in recycling.
``Let's wean recycling off the government dole,'' he said.
The hesitancy of investors to take to recycling may be a result of recycling's past dependency on government support, he said, concluding, ``Look, [recycling] may not have the return on investment of a casino, but it's still a good buy,'' he said.
The latest developments are in Florida, where the 11 members of the Senate's Natural Resources Committee introduced legislation earlier this month diverting $25 million from recycling programs to battling fast-growing weeds that threaten to choke Florida waterways.
Along with that, legislators propose repealing the state mandate that waste be reduced and diverted from the landfill by a total of 30 percent.
Florida's mandate and its sales-tax funding was intended only to jump-start recycling, said Gary Gayle, recycling coordinator in Leon County.
``Grant funds made it possible to experiment with programs. Without the grants, we'll be hard pressed to go beyond what we're doing now,'' Gayle said. ``Smaller counties, who wouldn't have recycling programs without state funds, will probably stop completely.''
That also may be true in Georgia, which only began giving recycling development grants to local governments in 1994. James Thompson, solid waste program manager for the Georgia Environmental Facilities Authority in Atlanta, noted some 60 grants of $10,000 each were presented to small communities that year, all used to purchase vehicles and bins.
In 1995, the fledgling state program was cut and $5,000 grants were presented to only 23 communities - all different communities from the previous year, Thompson said.
Georgia is behind the curve in meeting its 1996 state waste reduction and recycling goal, set at 25 percent in 1992. The state reached only 5.5 percent waste reduction, he said.
More state funding might help the reduction and recycling of solid waste in smaller communities, and Thompson admits Georgia has not been as aggressive as other states in investing in reduction and recycling.
``I don't think recycling will come to a halt'' if state funds cease, Thompson said, adding that the new program has not yielded much data to prove or disprove funding's importance.
In New York, grants to communities are continuing. Some 121 communities have enjoyed 138 state contracts to buy $37 million in recyclables collection equipment, most of it in the past eight years, said William Colden, chief of the Bureau of Waste Reduction and Recycling of the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
The community grants, Colden said, are not affected by Gov. George Pataki's vow to cut $2 million from DEC's office of recycling market development to assist companies getting started in the recycling business.
Florida legislators have spent $104 million on recycling promotion and education since 1989; legislators there now want to redirect recycling funding into other environmental priorities. Wisconsin will spend $200 million before phasing out seven years of state recycling grants by 1999. New York has granted businesses and communities about $80 million toward recycling equipment and education since 1980 - some of which Colden said was appropriated but not spent.
``All indications show a continuation in recycling programs'' despite eventual cuts in state recycling subsidies, said Randy Tess, president of recycler Catenation Inc. in Green Bay, Wis.
``Wisconsin has a plan to make recycling programs viable by 1999. It may happen sooner,'' he said.
Tess has received state grants to bolster his recycling business. He would not discuss their amounts, but said they have been helpful.
Doug Wadsworth, president and co-founder of Clearvue Polymers Inc. in Amsterdam, N.Y., said his company receives bottles from areas east of the Mississippi River. He said he ``can't see that the amount of plastic has fallen'' as a result of reduced state recycling equipment and education grant cuts.
Five years ago, such loans helped Wadsworth build his business, which he started in a garage in 1987.
``Once collection grew to the point where we could grind truckload quantities, we borrowed money from the state to improve our facilities,'' he said.
Wadsworth said he hopes his company eventually will produce more end products from recycled material, rather than just pellets or flake. The reasoning is simple: The profit margin on reground material is set more on the volume of material his facility handles and is generally pretty thin, he noted. Consumer products have a considerably higher added value.
``Throughout the South,'' said Atlanta lobbyist Steven Levitan, ``we're seeing a year in which we'll be rethinking the [recycling] program'' at the state level. ``Many recycling bills introduced in 1987, '88 and '89 are to be reviewed in 1995 and '96.
``Will recycling end as weknow it? No. It's been institutionalized. We won't see wholesale dropping of recycling plans,'' said Levitan, president of Resource Services Inc.
That sentiment was echoed by Jefferson Strickland, vice president of Plastic Materials Group, a Fayetteville, N.C., recycler of mixed-color high density polyethylene flake and pellets.
In some places it helps to have government money in research and development of new technologies, Strickland said, but, ``we have not used government grants'' to build the 6-year-old company.
A darker view of reduced state funding comes from Douglas Q. Johnson Sr., vice president and general counsel to the Wisconsin Merchants Federation's Consumer Packaging Council.
``Given Wisconsin's presence in environmental debates and its [proximity to] Canada, there is every reason to anticipate that we'll see `You made it, you take it' legislation if recycling markets weaken or political majorities change or the public looks for a scapegoat,'' he said.
``We saw the strength of the political coalition of local governments and [environmen-talists] during the 1989-90 legislative debate [on recycling]. ... That coalition has not reformed, but it could, and along with it could come the waste haulers.''
Johnson's remarks were compiled in a report, ``Solid Waste Disposal/Recycling Policy and Politics'' for Christopher C. Tackett, the Wisconsin Merchants Federation president.