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October 2007


Taking stock of recycling in California

Bridgett LutherWith more than 10 percent of the nation’s population, the State of California has long been the leader in establishing various recycling programs and setting the bar for others to follow.

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has upped the stakes, effectively becoming the nation’s pre-eminent environmental politician and backing up his promises with legislation.

Bridgett Luther, the director of the California Department of Conservation, was given a strong and clear mandate by Governor Schwarzenegger to promote recycling by residents, municipalities and businesses and at the same time, strengthen the recycling industry infrastructure.

These efforts have reaped benefits locally and the state is now in a position to help lead a national effort.

QUESTION: What is your legislative agenda to build up the recycling industry infrastructure in California?

ANSWER: Currently, California’s bottle and can recycling rate is 60 percent, and we’re shooting for a legislatively-set goal of 80 percent. We’re looking at a variety of ways to do that, including increasing marketing and funds to communities to help with their programs.

We’re also looking at how to implement sustainable recycling systems for all the new types of packaging entering the recycling stream.

QUESTION: What is the current status of California landfills and how is that impacting the need for the state to go green and ensure recyclable materials are being collected and sent to recyclers for processing?

ANSWER: Recycling has a big role to play in the fight against global warming by reducing energy use and greenhouse gases, which helps cut our carbon footprint. That’s a major goal of our work.

The Department of Conservation has several programs to make sure that we recycle beverage container materials. They include a program which funds research and development and equipment to improve the quality and quantity of recycled feedstock; another program to make sure that materials which are collected are actually made ready to use for manufacturing; and a third program offering incentives for processors and manufacturers to use recycled plastic. We also have laws requiring producers to use recycled glass.

QUESTION: Should the private sector be required to purchase a certain amount of recycled products and materials annually, assuming that the products meet various standards and specifications? Would you envision tax credits for purchasing such materials and products?

ANSWER: California has minimum recycled-content requirements for glass bottles, fiberglass, newsprint and plastic bags, and related requirements for rigid plastic packaging. All require the use of set levels of recycled material and can be a useful tool in insuring demand for recycled materials.

QUESTION: Recycling allows for the generation of power, provides jobs and taxes, increases of the lifespan of landfills and is good for the environment. Do you believe that Americans are willing to support strong recycling legislation and should the federal and state governments launch a recycling campaign similar to the one that was in effect during the Second World War?

ANSWER: We’ve found that recycling is popular with the public. Certainly, the public knows we all need to pitch in if we’re going to solve the problems of global warming, and as we’ve said, recycling helps in that effort.

QUESTION: Is your state following through on legislation to purchase products made from recycled materials and should there be nationwide minimums that all levels of government be required to purchase annually?

ANSWER: In 1999, California set a target requiring state agencies to divert at least 50 percent of their waste and we’ve met that goal. Now, the legislature is considering a bill that would raise it to 75 percent.

California also has a program - called Environmentally Preferable Purchasing (EPP) - along with other programs for “green” buildings and schools. In addition, we actively encourage businesses and the public to buy recycled materials whenever possible.

California’s programs in these areas are more aggressive than the federal efforts, and there is much the federal government can learn from our efforts.

QUESTION: Is it possible to establish a recycling council composed of all 50 states to develop legislation, economic models and establish best practices that will maximize recycling and ensure a flourishing recycling infrastructure nationwide?

ANSWER: Yes, as part of a larger strategy to reduce our carbon footprint and combat global warming. California is already leading the way with regional agreements to address greenhouse gases in the transportation and building sectors. Conceivably, that approach could be expanded to the recycling and waste management areas as well, and eventually include many or all states.