Bruce Ritchie: Is it time to revisit our approach to recycling?

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Is it time to trash our old-school ideas about recycling?

Recycling is important because it saves energy and reduces our need to create new landfills to bury waste for future generations.

But some recent news items raise the question of whether the future of recycling is going to be far different than the rinse-and-sort curbside recycling that most households have known in the past.

Last week, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection reported that the state’s recycling rate in 2013 was 49 percent, up 1 percent from the previous year.

But that recycling rate also includes credit for burning garbage to produce electricity, which rubs some environmentalists wrong.

To their credit, DEP officials also reported the “traditional” recycling rate without waste-to-energy, which increased from 35 to 38 percent.

Sierra Club Florida’s Dwight Adams says recycling should only count when it reduces the need for using the source original material, not when it is burned to produce electricity.

But some waste-to-energy industry representatives say producing energy from waste is recycling because it avoids the need for using coal, oil or natural gas to produce new electricity.

Then this week, I read that Montgomery, Ala., claims it has increased recycling from 1 percent to 70 percent with a new plant where recyclable materials are picked out of garbage. Now residents there can put almost anything in their garbage cans and congratulate themselves for recycling.

Is that the future of recycling — just leaving it to someone else to sort through your garbage or burn it? What about all those years spent educating people on the need to recycle?

Gene Jones of the Southern Waste Information Exchange in Tallahassee turned the last question around on me.

“Does it really matter from a consumer standpoint if I recycle and I go to the effort of putting source-separated material (recyclables) at the curb versus putting it in one container — that makes life simpler for me?

“If I do the second and the rate actually increases, aren’t we better off?” he asked.

Good point.

But Darby Hoover of the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco says that combining waste can contaminate recyclable materials so that it can’t be used to produce new products and avoid the use of natural resources.

The key, she said, is following the instructions given by local officials to make the local community recycling system as efficient as possible. And letting local officials know that you want maximum recycling.

“It’s not really about individual households making the decision,” Hoover said. “It’s really about them doing what the municipality has decided.”

So our future of recycling may involve less actual effort toward recycling but a need for individuals to have more understanding about what our communities are doing with our waste. And whether it really meets our own definition of recycling.

That may be a lot more difficult than rinsing and sorting.

Bruce Ritchie is an independent journalist covering environment and growth management issues in Tallahassee. He also is editor of Floridaenvironments.com