Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Play it again... and again

The Department of Environmental Quality just released the Virginia Annual Recycling Report that contains a mixture of good news, not so good news, and some so-so news. Statewide, Virginians recycled/reused 3,661,027 tons of material out of a 9,542,428 tons of solid waste generated, or about 38.5%. (see the report for details of the calculations). While to some that may sound pretty good, after a couple yeas of positive increases, the percentage rate has been flat since 2006.
No surprise that recycling rates are generally a few percentage points higher in urban/suburban areas where curbside recycling is available and lower in rural areas where folks have to take recycling to collection points. Rural curbside isn't cost effective and the long routes burning fuel would probably be more damaging to the environment than the lower recycling rates. Kudos to the Greater Richmond area that topped 50% for the second year and to Fredericksburg that got very close. On the flip side are places in our region like Botetourt Co. that only managed a 13.1% recycling rate. Caroline Co. earns my "Who Gives a Crap About the Environment" award for a dismal 10.4% rate.
In the CCC region, the rates are okay, but could certainly be better - Rockingham is 26.5%, Harrisonburg is 28.3%, and Augusta/Staunton/Waynesboro combined is 27.6%. But, Rockbridge, Lexington, and Buena Vista do a great job - 39%. Maybe other localities ought to recycle some of Rockbridge's ideas for boosting participation!
Perhaps recycling/reusing rates are actually higher than the DEQ numbers indicate? For example, plastic and oil recycling are available in my county but not convenient to where I live. So, I take oil to stores, like Advance Auto, where I buy it and take most plastic to a commercial recycler not located in my county. I also take high value aluminum to the commercial recycler - at least it pays for my gas to get there. Wood from projects and limbs from pruning are used as kindling in our efficient Jotul stove (I'm always amazed at the perfectly good firewood that is dumped at the landfill). We compost. Are those numbers factored in the DEQ statistics?
Recycling offers so many advantages - conserving resources, saving landfill space (tax $), and in cases like aluminum real production cost savings - it amazes me that everyone is not on board. But, I frequently see folks tossing card board, paper, cans, etc. that - with about 20 steps - could go into the recycling bin. I bite my tongue figuring that is better than a whoopin', but always wonder what whack on the side of the head it will finally wake these hardheads up.
The folks in Rockbridge probably have some great suggestions to boost rural recycling, but here are a few of mine:
  • KISS - keep it simple stupid. Forcing folks to do an inordinate amount of separating things like different types of paper probably means less recycling. My county accepts mixed paper and mixed glass - a good thing.
  • Make it convenient - recycling needs to be available at all waste disposal sites across the county. I my case it generally is, but plastic and used oil for example, is only accepted at the landfill.
  • Set the example - all government offices and schools should recycle on-site. The cost and manpower of collecting recycling from schools should be bore by the locality, not by the schools. Many teachers encourage recycling but a school-wide emphasis from grades K through 12 would send a strong message to families.
  • Rural or not so rural - most of our "rural" counties have larger subdivisions, small towns, and suburban areas that, if they aren't doing it already, could benefit from efficient curbside recycling.
Thirty-eight percent statewide is good, and slightly above the 33% nationwide average, but we ought to be shooting for 50%! And when we get there... 60%. We'll never achieve zero waste, but my personal experience and common sense tells me that 75% or more is quite doable. It is a matter of will, of leadership, and of the common good.

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