WASHINGTON — Recycling has reached a plateau. To reinvigorate it, governments should build infrastructure, enact policies requiring manufacturers to take responsibility for their waste and eliminate virgin materials, according to a report released March 27. The GrassRoots Recycling Network report said the skyrocketing growth of plastic packaging hurts efforts to divert waste from landfills because plastic is recycled less than other materials.
Municipal recycling has nearly tripled since 1980, to 28 percent, but communities can do more, said Neil Seldman, co-author of the report and director of the Waste to Wealth Program at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Washington.
"We are still an incredibly wasting society," he said.
GRRN's report, Wasting and Recycling in the United States 2000, said virgin material production consumes more natural resources, produces more greenhouse gases and leads to more pollution than boosting recycling.
For example, making PET and high density polyethylene containers takes four to eight times as much energy as reprocessing recycled plastic, the report said. More than 91 percent of all plastic packaging was sent to landfills in 1997, the report said.
"We are not attacking plastic — we are attacking the way the industry refuses to support recycling," Seldman said. "Plastic is the only industry that has not stepped to the plate."
GRRN, which has gained a much higher profile from its campaign to get Coca-Cola Co. to use more recycled plastic, advocates zero waste as a target. The report said the city of Canberra, Australia, with a population of 300,000, has adopted a zero-waste goal by 2010.
Five U.S. cities — Los Angeles; Portland, Ore.; San Diego; San Francisco; and Seattle — all have pledged to work together on manufacturers responsibility policies to boost recycling, Seldman said.
But other waste experts question whether it makes economic sense to recycle much more.
J. Winston Porter, head of the Waste Policy Center in Leesburg, Va., and a former assistant administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency, said generally about one-third of waste can be recycled economically.
Some communities may be able to get higher, but he said he questions figures from cities like Los Angeles, which said it diverted 48 percent of its waste in 1999.
A spokesman at the Arlington, Va.-based American Plastics Council said there is substantial excess in capacity in the plastics recycling infrastructure, so effort should be spent on finding ways to collect more plastic.