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Taking responsibility for recycling

A new measure to penalize us for being wasteful gets a mixed response

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You pull into a convenience store to buy a soda. When you get home, you drop the empty 20-ounce bottle in the garbage bin outside. The next day, the garbage is picked up and dumped at a nearby landfill where the bottle joins millions of other beverage containers that didn't make it into a recycling bin. If, as you read this, you a see guilt trip coming, at least you've got plenty of travelling companions.

In Georgia, a whopping three-fourths of all recyclable beverage containers end up in the trash. Apparently, consumers didn't quite get the message when the virtues of recycling were in the spotlight about a decade ago, but this statistic now has environmentalists, in conjunction with Georgia's powerful carpet industry, poised to bring the issue of recycling back to the table in the form of new legislation designed to make us less wasteful.

Why the carpet industry? Because Georgia's carpet manufacturers are the largest recyclers of plastic bottles in the nation. Close to 40 percent of all plastic bottles collected nationwide are processed here into such products as polyester fiber for residential carpet. Ironically, with the majority of bottles in Georgia ending up in landfills, they are forced to import bottles from other states and as far away as Mexico.

"It just doesn't make any sense," says Bob Woodall, executive director of Waste Not Georgia, a Doraville-based environmental group that is one of the primary forces behind a comprehensive waste-reduction package expected to be presented during the upcoming state legislative session. To deal with the bottle problem, the package includes a bill that would tack a deposit fee on most plastic beverage bottles to encourage people to return them for recycling.

Modeled after California's successful program, the process would work like this: a shopper would pay an extra 10 cents on every beverage bottle she buys. When the bottles are emptied and cleaned, she would take them to a redemption center, not back to the store, where she would collect an immediate refund of the deposit. The practice has been adopted by 10 other states so far, and boasts an 80- to 90-percent return rate, Woodall says.

But wait a minute. Why do we need to coerce people into recycling, which we all learned in school is the right thing to do? Did we miss the lesson about dwindling rain forests and wasteful energy practices? A recent Environmental Protection Agency report says yes. Today, the majority of our garbage is made up of perfectly recyclable materials. As the three most commonly recycled materials, paper still comprises almost 40 percent of our garbage, plastic about 10 percent and glass almost 6 percent.

In 1992, knowing that too little material was being recycled and too much of it was going into landfills, the state of Georgia encouraged cities and counties to decrease their solid waste flow by 25 percent within five years. It was a suggestion, not a mandate, and consequently few numbers were reported to measure the progress. Today, most local governments agree that the goal is still largely unmet.

There is much speculation on why we, as a nation, have failed to make a habit of recycling. Experts lament that the importance of recycling likely dwindled in our minds when it stopped being a high-profile concern. The fear of the earth being overtaken by garbage -- epitomized in the 1970s PSAs showing a tear running down the wrinkled cheek of a buckskin-clad Iron Eyes Cody as he surveyed a vast, open-air landfill -- lost some of its potency as municipalities learned to become more creative in finding places to dump their trash.

The issue also has been, to some degree, replaced by a growing concern for air and water quality -- and the fact that recycling ties into that equation has not been emphasized enough.

Jay Donoway, the state recycling coordinator for Georgia, says a major deterrent to recycling is the convenience factor: People simply aren't willing to take the time to separate their garbage from their recyclables and their recyclables from each other.

Gwinnett is trying to sidestep the hurdle of convenience by providing curbside recycling options to most residents, according to Connie Wiggins, the county's solid waste coordinator. Depending on where they live, residents can typically recycle glass, plastic containers and aluminum cans in one curbside bin, as well as paper, which is kept separate.

For those who need an extra push, Lawrenceville, Snellville and Duluth have adopted "pay as you throw" programs, in which residents pay for the amount of non-recycled garbage the city picks up. In Duluth, residents pay $1 per 30-gallon bag, with an average household using six bags per month. City Administrator Phil McLemore says the practice shows immediate savings and records indicate that nearly 90 percent of all recyclables are being recovered.

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