Mandate vs. Volunteer: What Works Better for Recycling?

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For those who make recycling an everyday habit, nothing can be more frustrating than seeing missed opportunities for expanded recycling, especially when it’s convenient.

With all of the known benefits of recycling, some supporters pose the question: Why can’t recycling just be mandatory?

Implementing a mandatory recycling program within a city is more complicated than it may seem, which is why most cities still rely on volunteer recycling efforts.

But does the work involved in implementing such a program outweigh the potential benefits of having an entire city participate in these programs? It’s a question many city officials and planners across the U.S. face as the demand for comprehensive recycling programs continue to grow.

Photo: Amanda Wills, Earth911.com

The U.S. EPA estimates that 75 percent of what Americans throw in the trash could actually be recycled. Photo: Amanda Wills, Earth911.com

Making Recycling Mandatory

Although many U.S. cities maintain an active recycling program, recycling in most is not mandatory, making it an option to residents and businesses.

In areas where recycling is not picked up regularly, initiatives rest solely on residents and business owners. Because of the extra effort involved, many individuals and businesses “opt out” of recycling altogether.

To increase resident and business participation in recycling, some U.S. cities have taken the initiative to make recycling mandatory, but the process is often more difficult than expected.

“Mandatory recycling is a hard sell in the United States, where the economy runs largely along free market lines and landfilling waste remains inexpensive and efficient,” says Larry West, a writer and editor who covers environmental issues for About.com.

West adds that some cities are reluctant to make recycling mandatory because of the expense (recycling often costs more than landfilling) and the wide availability of landfill space. In addition, creating a mandatory recycling program requires a budget and an implementation plan.

But despite the hurdles, some U.S. cities – San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle and Pittsburg – have made recycling mandatory. Other cities implement a “meet-in-the-middle” approach, where recycling is mandatory among businesses but not individual residents.

Implementing & Enforcing Recycling Laws

In municipalities where recycling is the law, program details vary but usually include requiring residents and businesses to recycle or face warnings or fines. The mandate is often enforced by the city’s garbage pick-up crew or city inspectors.

If a business or residence is found to have recyclables in their garbage, they’re warned or fined, depending on the case. In some cities, garbage pick-up crews who find recyclables in a household’s garbage will simply leave a note for the residents and not pick up their garbage until the next cycle.

And, although each city’s data varies, where recycling is mandatory often results in positive increases as locals make quick adjustments to the new rules. In 2006, Seattle launched its mandatory recycling ordinance and, within a couple months of the program’s launch, 90 percent of businesses and apartment complexes were complying with the ordinance, according to Hearst Seattle Media.

This summer, San Francisco passed some of the toughest laws in the nation, requiring individuals and businesses not only to recycle, but to maintain compost piles as well. The new laws will take effect this fall, with the eventual goal of reaching a 75 percent rate in 2010 and zero waste by 2020, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. San Francisco currently leads the nation in recycling efforts by diverting 72 percent of its waste.

Volunteerism Still Largest Recycling Effort

Despite the success some may have with recycling mandates, the fact remains that most U.S. cities will continue to run their efforts on a volunteer-basis only. Depending on the city, this often has to do with a lack of funds available to implement a mandatory program or lack of residential and business support.

In addition, critics of mandatory recycling laws bring up the point that investigating others’ garbage to look for recyclables might be seen as a violation of their civil rights.

Regardless of individual city laws, the recycling rate in the U.S. continues to rise thanks to individual efforts and well-organized programs. According to the EPA, from 1990 to 2005, the amount of trash going into U.S. landfills decreased by 9 million tons and continues to decrease every year.

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