A National Recycling Standard

I recycle, at least, I try to. Lifelong dedication to the environment, and I still wonder whether that envelope I’m holding is accepted in our paper recycling program. Are the plastic windowed ones allowed? If so, does the window have to be under a certain size? What about shiny paper? Usually it is excluded, however, junk mail is specifically mentioned as accepted. Of course, that doesn’t cover the plastics. Bypassing the issue of the numbers, a separate discussion altogether, take the example of plastic shopping bags. These items must be deposited elsewhere for recycling (the thin bags get trapped in the machinery and clog it), even though they are tagged with otherwise-included numbers. Did I mention that if otherwise excluded items wind up in the recycling pile, the entire batch is considered contaminated and subsequently thrown away? No pressure. Move to another city and the accepted items are likely completely different. With such a convoluted system, what hope does the average person trying to do their part have?

Recent news reports claim that the incoming Obama administration will be appointing former EPA administrator Carol Browner as energy “czar” to “coordinate energy issues across the federal government”. An entirely new position in the United States, surely her responsibilities will solidify as she grows into her role. Coordination is a wonderful idea; by keeping a unified focus in all federal activities, real progress can be made in energy policy. Energy, however, is not nearly as closed a field as implied. To make substantive impact on the global environment, they will need to focus on all aspects of energy use, and guarantee that we are using our energy efficiently and intelligently.

This is where the stories converge.

Recycling, at its very core, is intended to reduce the need to expend resources in making something new when an already-produced equivalent exists. If one were to ask a person why they might use recycled paper, a logical answer may include the following: “So we don’t have to cut down more trees”. The same goes for bottled water or a can of soda – why go through the effort of producing more virgin plastic when a recycled bottle already sequestered the necessary energy? In essence, recycling is the act of being more intelligent with our energy (and resource) use.

Suddenly, recycling sounds like a topic upon which the administration will wish to focus, but how to do so? Waste services are privately owned enterprises operating independently or on contract with municipalities, not the federal government. It is doubtful they would be open to nationalization, nor is that necessarily a good idea, but what about some standards? Is there anything else the federal government has a hand in regulating by allowing its operation by the private sector? Bingo, organic foods. Currently, the USDA provides standards for independent certifying bodies to inspect operations for compliance. If approved, they are permitted to use the USDA Organic seal on their product, providing standardization and ease-of-use for consumers.

I propose a similar system for recycling. Instead of the current labyrinth of policies, simply have a universally-recognizable logo printed on all products meeting the federal government’s recycling standard. The EPA (presumably the lead agency on the issue) will then go about assisting and approving existing waste disposal/recycling companies. Upon certification, they will be capable of processing a given criteria of materials, for example, plastics coded 1-6, clear and green glass, aluminum, and specific forms of paper, for all of their existing customers. The difference now is that on the disposal end, we do away with the traditional recycling logo and affiliated marks, and replace them with a custom EPA Recycle logo, in the same vein as the USDA Organic logo. For citizens living/working within a service area of an EPA-approved waste disposal company, they can rest assured that if they place an EPA Recycle labelled product in their recycle bin, it will be properly recycled. Market forces will push waste operators to achieve the EPA distinction to accommodate the demands of their clientele, as well as product manufacturers adopting its use on appropriate products.

Such a system eliminates the consideration of plastic code numbers (many people don’t even know they exist), cardboard versus paperboard recycling, or any number of other issues that can and do arise daily. Reference the success of the USDA Organic seal. Average citizens regularly seek out organic options, a change partially brought about simply by the addition of a standardized logo.

We have a golden opportunity ahead of us as we welcome a new administration strongly committed to the environment. A national recycling standard will help bridge the gap between the U.S. and Switzerland, the global leader, standing at 76%. As of 2007, the United States had a recycling rate of approximately 33%, a value needlessly diminished by confusion, contamination, and general ignorance of the current situation. Americans want to recycle, but when presented with a hodgepodge of policies nationwide, it can make even the most green of people simply throw it away.

What do you think?

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