Monday, January 29, 2007

GAO Says Municipal Recycling Efforts Could Be Increased

Jan 29: The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has just released a report entitled, Recycling: Additional Efforts Could Increase Municipal Recycling (GAO-07-37, December 29, 2006). The report was requested last year by former Senator James Jeffords (I-VT) and several other members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. In 2005, the United States generated about 246 million tons of municipal solid waste, or over 1,600 pounds per person, according to the most current Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates. EPA reported that 79 million tons of this waste were recycled, while the remaining 166.7 million tons were combusted, went to landfills, or were otherwise disposed of. EPA currently has a goal of recycling 35 percent of national municipal solid waste by 2008.

According to the report, although recycling can generate environmental and economic benefits, the national recycling rate has increased only slightly since 2000 (i.e. from 29% to 32%), according to U.S. EPA [
See WIMS 10/23/06]. While local governments have the primary role in operating recycling programs, EPA and the Department of Commerce have some legal responsibilities for encouraging recycling. GAO was asked to (1) identify key practices cities are using to increase recycling, (2) describe what EPA and Commerce are doing to encourage recycling, and (3) identify Federal policy options that could help increase recycling. GAO interviewed recycling coordinators in 11 large cities about key practices and 13 additional recycling stakeholders about policy options. GAO selected both groups based on geographic representation and recycling expertise, among other factors.

GAO indicates that recycling coordinators interviewed in selected cities across the country identified several key practices they are using to increase recycling in their cities. The three practices they cited most frequently were (1) making recycling convenient and easy for their residents, (2) offering financial incentives for recycling, and (3) conducting public education and outreach. In addition, both recycling coordinators and the recycling literature identified other ways to increase recycling, such as targeting a wide range of materials for recycling and extending recycling programs to the commercial sector.

GAO found that one of EPA’s principal national recycling programs, WasteWise, creates voluntary partnerships with groups, such as universities, states, and businesses, to help them increase their recycling. EPA also provides competitive grants to support projects designed to increase recycling. However, the impact of EPA’s programs is unknown because the programs lack performance measures and comprehensive data on program performance. GAO also found that although Commerce is required under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) to stimulate the development of markets for recycled materials, the agency is not currently taking any actions to do so in the United States.

GAO reported that the recycling stakeholders they interviewed identified various Federal policy options that they believe could help municipalities increase their recycling rates. The three Federal policy options cited most frequently were to (1) establish a nationwide campaign to educate the public about recycling; (2) enact a national “bottle bill” in which beverage containers may be returned for money; and (3) require manufacturers to establish systems that consumers can use to recycle their products. Other identified policy options included: facilitating the sharing of recycling best practices among municipalities; expanding EPA research on the economic and environmental benefits of recycling; and providing additional grant money for recycling projects.

In its investigation, GAO interviewed recycling coordinators from Atlanta, Georgia; Austin, Texas; Chicago, Illinois; Denver, Colorado; Jacksonville, Florida; Minneapolis, Minnesota; New York, New York; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Portland, Oregon; San Francisco, California; and Seattle, Washington.

Access the complete 51-page report (click here). [*Solid]