After years of rapid growth, the nation's recycling rate appears to be leveling off as many states and municipalities find it hard to achieve their most ambitious goals for the diversion of garbage.

In 1980, about 10 percent of the municipal solid waste stream was diverted to recycling. By 1990, the figure had grown to about 16 percent.

From 1996 to 1998, the last year for which numbers are available, the rate climbed from 27.4 percent to 28.8 percent. The recycling effort is about evenly split between individuals and businesses.

"The problem with increasing the recycling rate is that we've gotten the most easy-to-get stuff already. We're pulling out the corrugated boxes, the newspapers, the aluminum cans. Much of the garbage that is left is either hard to recycle or not worth the effort. Do you want to recycle hot dog wrappers? Kitty litter? You could do it, but at what cost?" said J. Winston Porter, president of the Waste Policy Center and the EPA official who in 1988 set the national goal of recycling 25 percent of our garbage, which was met in 1995.

Today, about 136 million people, or about 51 percent of the U.S. population, have embraced curbside recycling programs, transforming in a few decades a throwaway postwar culture of profligate "wasters" into a population that by and large has agreed to separate its cans, bottles and newspapers before hauling out the trash.

Porter points out that recycling has its costs, "both in dollars and in terms of the environmental costs. When you recycle something, particularly something that is not worth any money to anyone, you pay to recycle. You also pay environmental costs, such as transportation, energy consumption and some pollution."

On average nationally, it may cost about $50 to tip a ton of garbage into a landfill, while recycling materials costs about $100 a ton.

Porter and others think that the nation will reach a goal of recycling in which about one-third of the garbage we produce is diverted to other uses instead of ending up in a dump.

The EPA has quietly set a goal of 35 percent by 2005, when each person in the United States should generate no more than 4.3 pounds of solid waste daily.

"The nation appears to be on track to meet that goal," according to the independent consultants Franklin Associates of Prairie Village, Kan., which keeps track of trash for the EPA. "But it will take continued commitment from business, industry, government and the public to do so."

Ten years ago, most states and many municipalities set recycling goals. Many of the goals were ambitious, with a dozen states hoping to recycle 50 percent of their municipal solid waste by the year 2000. Most states have failed to reach their goals, though many municipalities have done so.

New York and California, two of the nation's biggest producers of garbage, set the bar at 50 percent by 2000, and neither will make it. California has the strictest requirements written into law, allowing slackers to be fined as much as $10,000 a day. But so far, no California cities have been fined, and they may never be because extensions may be granted out until the year 2006.

An Associated Press review of reports filed to the California Integrated Waste Management Board found that of 431 jurisdictions that reported to the state, only about 25 percent had met the 50 percent goal by 1998, the last year on record.

"We are making incredible strides in California, but we are not there yet," said Steven Jones, a member of the Integrated Waste Management Board.

Jones, however, is not ready to support a rollback of the goal. "We've built the infrastructure to do it. Businesses have embraced it and its good for their bottom line. I think we'll get there."

Mark Murray, executive director of the trash watchdog group Californians Against Waste, says that recycling has produced "this phenomenal transformation" of society in a very short time.

"In California, hundreds of cities are at or near 50 percent recycling, and these are not just the places you'd expect, like Berkeley, Arcata or Davis, but San Jose, Los Angeles and San Diego," Murray said. "We've proven that it can be done."

There does appear to be some deep desire among many citizens to support recycling and to actually do it themselves, to pluck their cans and bottles from the waste stream and place them in their color-coded plastic curbside receptacles for weekly pickup.

Many trash experts believe the reason for the urge to recycle is not regulators pawing through trash and threatening fines, but that for many ordinary Americans recycling seems to be a tangible thing they can do to help the environment.

There appears to be a deeply embedded uneasiness in our culture about throwing away junk that can be reused. Perhaps, in part, it is guilt about consumption. Perhaps it also feels unnatural. Mother Nature doesn't throw stuff away. Dead trees, birds, beetles and elephants are pretty quickly recycled by the system.

Many people may feel they cannot do much about global warming or the rain forests, but they do know they can put an aluminum can in the recycling bin, Murray said, "and I am hard pressed to think of any sort of resource conservation that has such a tangible effect."

The recycling craze really began in this country in 1987, when a garbage barge named the Mobro 4000 began wandering around the oceans looking for a place to dump a load of Long Island trash. The news media and environmentalists quickly concluded that there was a shortage of landfill space and that the answer was to divert garbage from burial in holes in the ground and recycle.

In retrospect, however, the "landfill crisis" appears to have been regional, and somewhat overblown. Land for municipal dumps is scarce around some cities in the Northeast, but plentiful elsewhere.

While there were about 18,000 landfills in 1975, there are about 2,300 today. Many are "superdumps," taking in more than 500 tons of waste a day. A lot of garbage today travels several hundred miles to reach its final resting place.

What will the future of recycling hold?

It is clear that many municipalities will reach the EPA's 35 percent goal, and that real dedication will push others to 50 percent--and beyond. Some advocates, in fact, such as the Grassroots Recycling Network based in Athens, Ga., have begun to talk about "zero waste."

But other experts, such as Porter, the former EPA official, are skeptical. "I think its fairly remarkable what we've done," he said. "But the problem with shooting too high may be that it discourages people. You know, for some people, recycling is their whole life. But I don't know that many people like that."

CAPTION: WHITHER WASTE? (This chart was not available)

CAPTION: Judy Tavares of Cambridge, Mass., recycles plastic bottles. Some experts say that raising the percentage of garbage that is recycled will be difficult. "We've gotten the most easy-to-get stuff already," said J. Winston Porter, president of Waste Policy Center.