Reclaim the role as the leader in recycling


   One of the more welcome sights in New Jersey neighborhoods over the past couple of decades has been all those brightly colored buckets that crop up every couple of weeks, filled with glass, metal, plastic and paper ready to be recycled.
   Sadly, among the more disheartening pieces of news coming out of Trenton in the past couple of weeks is the announcement that fewer and fewer New Jerseyans are putting less and less material into those recycling containers.
   In 1987, New Jersey was the first state in the country to adopt a mandatory statewide recycling program. And, for the first 10 years or so, the program was an unabashed success. An average of 67.1 percent of the glass, metal, plastic and paper that would otherwise have ended up in landfills was recycled during that first decade, making the Garden State the undisputed national leader in recycling.
   But those days are long gone. The state Department of Environmental Protection reports that no more than 34.3 percent of recyclable materials is now being separated from regular trash. And New Jersey, instead of being a national leader, now ranks no higher than 25th among all the states in total recycling.
   "It is troubling to see a reduction in the commitment to recycling," said former Gov. Jim Florio during an Earth Day event marking the 20th anniversary of New Jersey’s mandatory recycling law. "It leads to air and water pollution and global warming and leads to a reduction in job opportunities. We should take today’s event as a recommitment to recycling."
   DEP Commissioner Lisa Jackson seized the occasion to call for action. "We must explore every legislative, regulatory and economic tool available to meet the challenge of boosting our recycling rates," she declared.
   Actually, very little exploration is required. There are two fundamental reasons why recycling rates in New Jersey have fallen so precipitously. The first is that the cost of garbage removal for towns and counties has dropped. The second is that state and local funding for recycling education and awareness has dried up.
   Without a strong economic incentive to promote recycling — such as out-of-sight disposal costs — towns and counties have little reason to enforce New Jersey’s mandatory recycling law. And without funding to promote public education and awareness of the benefits of recycling, fewer residents are investing their time and effort in separating glass, metal, plastic and paper from the rest of their household garbage.
   State Sen. Bob Smith, the Middlesex County Democrat who chairs the Senate Environmental Committee, has introduced a measure that would attack both of these underlying causes of the decline in recycling. His bill would impose a $3 surcharge on every ton of garbage collected in New Jersey, and use the proceeds — an estimated $650 million a year — to finance recycling education, awareness and enforcement.
   Would this approach be effective? Here’s proof that it would be. From 1987, when the mandatory recycling law was passed, until 1996, New Jersey imposed a $3-per-ton surcharge on garbage collection, the proceeds of which financed an aggressive education and awareness program. That’s when the state had a 67.1 percent recycling rate. In 1996, the Legislature let the surcharge expire. Now the recycling rate is 34.3 percent. You do the math.
   Recycling isn’t just a feel-good expression of environmentalism. It is, as former Gov. Florio points out, an ecological and economic imperative. New Jersey, once a trailblazer in recycling, shouldn’t hesitate to reclaim its leadership role in this important enterprise.