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There’s waste, and then there’s waste: recycling is calling your name

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Jefferson County legislators are considering a local law that would put some additional teeth in recycling, making it mandatory even for apartment owners and dwellers in an effort to extend the life of the Development Authority of the North Country landfill at Rodman. It’s a bit discouraging to consider that the county is doing this now, in 2013, when recycling has been at the top of the state’s waste hierarchy — with reuse and conservation — for almost 30 years.

Recycling seems like a no-brainer. Don’t throw in the garbage something that can be recycled, and you won’t fill up that garbage bag as quickly. The fewer times a week you fill up that garbage bag, the less you’ll pay to have it disposed of. But it’s deeper and more complex than that.

The average person generates 4 pounds of trash a day. Of that, the government says, 75 percent, or almost 3 pounds, is recyclable under optimum conditions. Optimum conditions seldom exist, however, so the practical amount of recyclable waste is probably closer to a couple of pounds. It isn’t unfair to suggest we should be recycling almost half of what we toss out.

As an example, very little plastic has no recycling value. When recycling first started, only about three categories of plastic was recyclable. With new technology, however, five categories are now accepted, which has vastly increased the number of items we should recycle rather than throw out.

Glass, metal and paper are all strongly recycled items, and even in areas where source separation is required, as it is in most of the north country, recycling is much less of a burden than it used to be.

So why, you might wonder, do we need a local law? Sadly, it’s because there are still a lot of people who don’t routinely sort recyclable wastes out of their trash. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why.

A lot of the compelling reasons to recycle are based on the environmental advantages. Recycling has long been a darling of the green crowd. But in my experience, a lot of people who talk a good environmental game aren’t so good at backing those words up with actions. So I’m going to appeal to a more basic instinct: greed. The more you recycle (no cost) the less you throw out (money from your pocket) and the longer the Rodman landfill lasts (money in your pocket).

As the folks at DANC have pointed out, every recyclable item that is removed from the waste stream is one item that isn’t buried and taking up space in a finite landfill. Somewhere down the road, the Rodman site is going to be full. When that happens, finding the next solid waste solution is going to be even more difficult than siting the Rodman landfill was. No one wants a landfill in their backyard, no matter how good the siting technology has become, and absent a technological solution that has not yet appeared on the horizon to replace landfills, finding a replacement for Rodman is going to be no mean feat.

It is eventually going to happen, but the more waste that people recycle, the further into the future that difficulty abides. Cutting the waste stream from 4 pounds per person per day to a couple of pounds per person per day — or even less — is a goal we all ought to be behind. And it is a goal that most waste experts think is attainable.

Back in the late 1980s, when recycling came to Delaware County where I then lived, the process was a lot more primitive. Far less plastic was accepted, paper had to be diligently sorted and most transfer stations and almost no haulers were set up to take scrap metal, other than tin and aluminum cans. All that has changed. The burden has shifted to end users now, with active markets for most recycled goods. Those markets are cyclical and there is seldom “big money” to be made by municipalities in recycling, but the situation is far better than it once was, when most recyclers would take material off your hands for a fee.

It’s time for the north country to get serious about recycling. There are no reasons not to, and fewer rational excuses than ever. Every week, when I go to the Adams transfer station with my single garbage bag and three containers of recyclables, I feel pretty good about it. And my garbage disposal costs are down to about a buck a week. There’s something to be said for that, as well.

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