This year every locality in Virginia is required by law to recycle 10 percent of its waste stream. But as of July of 1990, dozens of cities, counties and towns had not implemented recycling programs of any kind, according to the Virginia Department of Waste Management. Most of these jurisdictions are in the rural areas of the state, but even in some of our more urban and suburban areas, recycling is in its infancy.
Awareness of the impending garbage crises led the Virginia General Assembly to enact legislation in 1989 aimed at reducing the municipal solid-waste stream. The legislature established mandatory recycling rates, which require every jurisdiction to ensure that 10 percent of the waste stream is being recycled by 1991. The rate increases to 15 percent by 1993 and to 25 percent by 1995.
Unfortunately, our legislators failed to allocate funds to assist local governments in initiating recycling programs. More important, they ignored the issue of marketing recyclables -- collection of recyclables is one thing, ensuring that they are recycled is another.
The legislature could take initiatives to help stimulate markets and involve industry in waste reduction and recycling. One such initiative is a deposit law. Nine states that have already adopted deposit laws attribute a 6 percent to 8 percent reduction in waste to the laws -- this equates to one-fifth to one-fourth of a 25 percent recycling goal.
In these states, consumers and industry participate jointly in the collection and recycling of deposit materials. Trash disposal has historically been the responsibility of local government, but with a mushrooming waste stream and spiraling disposal costs, localities can no longer shoulder the entire burden of managing waste. They need to form partnerships that include business, government and consumers.
Deposit laws work, because they provide a monetary incentive for returning containers, involving people who might otherwise not participate in a recycling program. The refund value of the container also discourages litter, saving state and local governments cleanup and disposal costs.
Deposit laws provide an efficient means of collection and a steady supply of clean recyclable materials. Local governments are not required to collect the materials or find markets. The guaranteed supply of glass, aluminum, bimetal and plastic containers stimulates market demand, and because the manufacturer, distributor, retailer and consumer share the responsibility for beverage container recycling, the containers are removed from the waste stream at no cost to government.
Opponents of the deposit system argue that it removes the valuable material from curbside recycling programs, thus reducing the revenue derived from sale of the aluminum, glass and plastic. However, these revenues, even without a deposit system, do not offset the costs of curbside recycling. In any event, a recent General Accounting Office report said, "officials from most deposit-law states believe that deposit systems and curbside programs are compatible."
A Gallup poll conducted last year asked Virginians, "Would you favor or oppose the creation of a required container-deposit system in Virginia?" Seventy-five percent said they would favor it.
If the general assembly expects localities to meet the tough recycling requirements it has set for Virginia, then it must be willing to adopt initiatives that allow the business community to share with government the responsibility of reducing the waste stream.
Requiring deposits on beverage containers is one means of involving industry. It has a proven record of success and is supported by most of the state's citizens. In Virginia, the deposit system is an idea whose time has come.
-- Robert J. O'Neill Jr. is city manager of Hampton; this article is excerpted from the Virginia Forum, a nonprofit group that disseminates information on Virginia issues.