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100% Recycling – Not Just a Dream

by Jonathan Campbell

Mountains of trash and garbage soaring skyward. Staten Island, Mt. Trashmore, seagulls, stench, groundwater pollution, incinerators, air pollution, toxic ash. These seem to be the sights and smells of the ‘90s. In the public media, we hear the refrain over and over again: "What are we going to do with all this trash?" The incinerator companies promote their machines, but then we discover that they are poison factories. They produce dioxin, mercury, and lead in the air, and they don’t even solve the trash problem: they leave 30% of the waste behind as toxic ash! Against this backdrop, 100% recycling seems like an impossible dream.

Yet there are towns and cities that are doing something about their trash headaches. They are instituting recycling programs that are unprecedented – some reaching 70% recycling rates (and one - Chatham, N.J., - has reached 89%!) Through community-wide education and incentive programs, they have accomplished what was considered impossible just five years ago.

Let’s look at what some of these towns are doing:

  • "Pay As You Throw" – it is clear that a monetary incentive, however modest, is the centerpiece of a successful recycling program. In Worcester, MA, the city sells official Worcester trash bags for 50c per bag. Non-recycled trash must be placed in these bags in order to be picked up at the curbside. There is no charge for pickup of separated recycled materials; curbside recycling bins are provided by the city. A public education program and that small "pay-per-bag" monetary incentive – which encouraged people to think about what they were throwing away – propelled Worcester to becoming a model recycling community, reaching a recycling rate of over 50%.
  • Material Recycling Facilities (MRFs) – some towns have built community recycling centers to provide a convenient place for drop-off and bundling of recycled goods. In Halton Hills, Ontario, a town of 40,000, residents built a MRF which quickly became a community center. In addition to materials recycling (metal, glass, plastic, etc.) their center serves as a place to bring used household items and furniture, which is then repaired (if necessary) and resold in a year-round flea market. Recycled materials are further separated into fine categories, since the highest prices are paid for pure materials. There is educational literature on household and community composting and other environmental issues. Mainly volunteers - retired people, working people who donate their time, and students - staff the facility, which the residents named WasteWise. Halton Hills recycles or reuses over 60% of their "trash."

So it is obvious that 60% recycling is easily achievable, and, as mentioned above, some communities recycle far more than that. What would it take for us to become a "recycling society" in which we recycled 100% of our trash? Why is this important? (Think for a moment about the legacy of dumping and burning of trash for the next 20 generations. What do we want to leave for our children 500 years from now?)

The answer is that it is not technically difficult to reach very close to 100% recycling, and that changes in packaging and production could bring us to 100%. There are households (such as the author’s - see note 1, below) which operate at over 95% recycling. Virtually all trash today – with a few notable exceptions – is easily reused or recycled.

Incineration Is A Hoax

Yet our government officials, who sometimes have a less-than-savory relationship with incinerator and trash hauling companies, set low or non-existent recycling goals, and rely upon landfilling and/or incineration – the dirtiest and most polluting waste technology available - for a large percentage of trash. (For instance, even in Massachusetts, where recycling is taken for granted in many cities and towns, officials of the Massachusetts Department of Environment Protection have set a goal of 46% recycling, 4% landfilling, and 50% incineration). Ordinary trash landfilling eventually causes severe environmental problems - toxic runoff, methane, and groundwater pollution. Incineration, often presented as an "alternative" to landfills, is really a hoax: as mentioned before, incineration does not even eliminate landfills. Ash landfills (called monofills) are far more dangerous and toxic than raw trash landfills.

Incinerator ash is extremely hazardous (see note 2, below), containing dioxin and heavy metals such as lead, mercury, and cadmium. Ash landfills are a legacy of poison that must be monitored for eternity. They never can become non-toxic, because most of the toxic materials in them - the heavy metals - do not bio-degrade. The air emissions from incineraters are the largest source of dioxin and mercury in the U.S. "Modern" pollution controls on these poison factories just move some of the toxic emissions from the air to the ash. Incinerators are an imminent threat to the health of our citizens.

What Can We Do?

Become acquainted with current literature on recycling. An excellent new pamphlet on recycling, called Beyond 46 Percent, was just published by the Recycling Initiative Campaign/Toxics Action Center in Massachusetts (617-292-4821). Model recycling communities are highlighted, with a description of their programs. Anti-incinerator activists Paul and Ellen Connett lead an organization called Work On Waste which publishes a pro-recycling, anti-incineration newsletter called Waste Not, and can provide technical information on recycling projects (315-379-9200); videos are available from Video-Active Productions (315-386-8797), including one about Waste Wise, the community recycling project mentioned above.

Call your state Department of Environmental Protection or send them a letter, to urge them to promote a goal of 100% recycling and oppose the use of incineration, which is a hoax - a poisonous technology that does not solve the trash problem and that cannot be made clean. Urge them to promote "pay-per-bag" systems statewide.

Send letters to the editors of the local newspapers, explaining the issues in simple language.

If your town already has a recycling center, find out more about the kinds of materials that are recycled. Encourage your friends and neighbors to recycle and to get involved in the effort.

Join or form a town environmental group to promote 100% recycling in your town. Become familiar with the local problems of trash disposal. (For example, in Massachusetts the NESWC contract binds 23 towns and cities in the state to use - and pay for - the super-polluting Wheelabrator incinerator located in North Andover). Convince your town officials that 100% recycling is achievable.

Enlist the help of the Recycling Initiative Campaign and Work On Waste for guidance in carrying out your local campaign. They will put you in touch with others who have carried out effective programs.


1. In a four-month experiment, the author collected 70 shopping bags of recycled materials, 20 cubic feet of newspapers, and 4 shopping bags of non-recycled trash (primarily used paper towels and tissues). All food waste was composted. There are some packaging materials and composite-material products that are not designed to be conducive to recycling. This is the area that needs some work to make recycling easier - packaging and production.

2. The Supreme Court of the U.S. ruled that incinerator ash is not exempt from hazardous waste testing, which would have caused most ash to be classified as hazardous waste. The EPA then changed the rules for handling and testing of the ash so as to allow the incinerator operators to circumvent this ruling.

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