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Oversight committee: when examining recycling, the federal government seems to have overlooked the largest sectors.

The Governmental Accountability Office (GAO) is commissioned by the federal government to conduct research and provide objective information to all branches of the government.

Unfortunately, a recent research report prepared by the GAO may have repeated a mistake commonly made by those unfamiliar with the recycling industry: concentrating on municipal curbside programs while overlooking the large-scale recycling that takes place in the industrial and commercial sectors.

The purpose of the report was to examine how the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can provide support to municipalities to help them boost their recycling rates.

Titled "Additional Efforts Could Increase Municipal Recycling," the report sought the opinions of select municipal recycling program coordinators as to what government agencies are doing properly and where they are misfiring in terms of supporting their programs.

But as part of that overall endeavor, the EPA, the Department of Commerce and the GAO may not be keeping their eyes and ears open to what can be learned from the commercial sector.

DOMESTIC PARTNERS. As part of its overall support for the recycling industry as spelled out in the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the Department of Commerce is "required ... to stimulate the development of markets for recycled materials," according to the GAO report.

According to both the GAO's assessment and Billie Johnson, a government relations staff member with the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries Inc. (ISRI), Washington, the Department of Commerce is only partially succeeding.

"The Commerce department is charged with trying to promote international markets for recycled materials and they have done a very good job," says Johnson. He notes that, in particular, the Department of Commerce was helpful when ISRI organized two recent trade missions, one to China and the other to India.

On the home front, however, the Department of Commerce apparently has not been as active in developing markets for secondary commodities, according to Johnson. He says ISRI would be pleased to see some effort. "On the domestic side, we would welcome them to work on a real comprehensive and robust strategy to use recycled materials and encourage manufacturers to use recycled materials," he comments.

A WIDER VIEW, While Johnson praises the GAO as consisting of sound researchers and agrees with many of the most recent report's findings, he also says the agency should look beyond municipal programs to draw a complete picture of the recycling industry.

The report was created as a response to a request from several legislators--Sens. Thomas Carper (D-Del.), James Jeffords (I-Vt.), Barack Obama (D-Ill.), Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.)--asking to identify best recycling practices in cities. The senators' request also asked for a recap of what the federal government is currently doing and what it should be doing to encourage additional recycling activity.

A premise the GAO adopted is that "local governments have the primary role in operating recycling programs." For curbside programs, that may be true. But the private sector, exemplified by ISRI's members, handles a huge volume of recyclables that actually dwarfs municipal curbside programs in terms of keeping materials out of the landfill and creating closed-loop secondary commodity markets.

Johnson says that the federal government is largely unaware of how to even collect information on the commercial recycling industry. He notes that the United States Geological Survey and the Bureau of Labor Statistics gather some information, but it is uncertain to what extent agencies like the EPA or GAO are aware of the entire commercial recycling sector.

During the information gathering stage for its report, the GAO interviewed "recycling coordinators in 11 large cities" as well as "13 additional recycling stakeholders." The interview topics, according to the GAO, were recycling program practices and policy options.

"Municipal recycling is very important, but it is really only a small part of what goes on," says Johnson. "In studies like this one, they should also study the important and significant contributions of scrap recycling."

Johnson notes that the scrap industry processed some 140 million tons of material in 2006 and exported some $10 billion worth of secondary commodities. "Our message to the GAO would be that there is a lot more to recycling than municipal programs," Johnson says.


The following passages are excerpts from the GAO report titled, "Additional Efforts Could Increase Municipal Recycling":

* Although EPA has no recent national data on the proportion of waste generated by the commercial sector as compared with the residential sector, the agency has estimated that 35 to 45 percent of the nation's municipal solid waste was generated by the commercial sector in 1997.

* According to Commerce officials, the agency currently supports increased international trade in recycled and recyclable materials as part of its general trade promotion responsibilities. However, Commerce is falling short of meeting its requirements under RCRA to stimulate the development of markets for recycled materials ... For example, Commerce is not identifying the geographical location of existing or potential markets for recycled materials, identifying the economic and technical barriers to the use of recycled materials or implementing specific measures to encourage the development of new uses for recycled materials in the United States.

The author is editor-in-chief of Recycling Today and can be contacted at
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Author:Taylor, Brian
Publication:Recycling Today
Date:Mar 1, 2007
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