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Cleaning Up Our Act

January 1, 1989 -

We are in danger of becoming buried under a mountain of waste, squandering scarce resources and destroying our environment in the process.

Traditionally, the solution to waste has been to burn or bury it. But recycling is coming into vogue as a way to save money, resources, and the environment, all at the same time. For example, David Morris of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance reports: "A city the size of San Francisco disposes of more aluminum than is produced by a small bauxite mine, more copper than a medium copper mine and more paper than a good-sized timber stand." More than 800,000 tons of scrap cardboard cartons per year are shipped through the port of New York to mills in Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Italy, Spain and Mexico to be recycled into new paper. And every ton that's recycled is a ton of waste diverted from costly landfills and even costlier incinerators.

The city of Seattle, Washington, has embarked on a very successful recycling program. Until last year, Seattle planned to build an expensive and polluting incinerator. Instead, prodded by environmentalists and neighbourhood activists, it decided to recycle the city's waste. A curbside recycling program was begun last February, with the aim of at least 60 per cent recovery. The new program includes sorting and separating paper, glass, aluminum, and other reusable waste in separate containers. The city is now recycling 2,500 tons of bottles, cans and newspaper through this program each month, over 25 percent of its waste stream.

Waste disposal and resource conservation were long considered to be two entirely different things. However, cities like Seattle have demonstrated that people with both environmental and profit motives can be on the same side of the recycling issue. Many communities in Canada already have private recycling programs, and more and more city councils are launching public garbage recovery programs (e.g., "blue box" curbside pickup in the cities of York and Toronto) as landfill sites become scarce. So far, most of these programs target only residential areas—much larger savings will follow commercial and industrial recycling. People involved in the curbside programs are enthusiastic, report the authors of the article on Seattle's experience. "Recycling compels people to think about ecology—to see the connection between individual acts and the environment." (Ken Stump and Kathy Doiron, "The System Works: Seattle's Recycling Success," Greenpeace, January/February 1989, pp. 16-17)