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Recycling is down in the dumps

A backhoe pushes crumpled humps of cereal boxes, 7-Up cans, grocery bags and newspaper onto an industrial escalator, moving like a giant metal rat constructing a nest.

This is Rabanco’s recycling plant in South Seattle, among the country’s most streamlined and adaptable waste-separating facilities.

Yet even here, in a city among the first to offer curbside recycling in the late 1980s, recycling has seen better times.

This week, activists and representatives of recycling businesses and governments gathered in Seattle for the National Recycling Congress. Lectures and seminars touched on everything from design trends to the zero-waste movement to guidelines for “green” building.

But there’s a subtext.

“Recycling is struggling right now,” said Janet Nazy, executive director of the Washington State Recycling Association. “Some people have forgotten about it. It’s not in the news. Some people are lazy. Some wonder if it’s worth it. We’ve started a foundation to do waste-reduction education because the state’s not doing as much anymore.”

In February 2000, a state panel convened to “revitalize” recycling in Washington – where recycling rates remain down from their high of 40 percent in 1995 – but many of its recommendations were never implemented.

A spate of anti-recycling news reports led the country’s largest nonprofit recycling organization to keep a four-page guide on its Web site: “How to Respond to Attacks on Recycling.”

Timber giant Weyerhaeuser – the second-largest paper recycler in the country – stumps for recycling, trying to head off criticism that recycling might not make sense.

Seattle’s recycling rate is 39 percent, still among the highest in the nation, though down from its high of 42 percent. Washington state’s rate rose 3 points to 35 percent last year.

Product stewardship, where manufacturers take responsibility for a product through its life span, is rising. The carpet industry recently announced it will try to take back 40 percent of its products over the next 10 years, for example.

And people are increasingly buying recycled products. Weyerhaeuser officials estimate recycled-paper production in 2005 will be 175 million tons worldwide – up from 150 million tons five years earlier. Buyers are expected to demand recycled content in almost 50 percent of all paper by 2005 – up from 44 percent today.

But other parts of the industry aren’t doing as well. Shipping rates, the value of the dollar and the recession are having an effect. “It’s a cyclical business,” said George Weyerhaeuser, vice president of technology and a great-great-grandson of the company’s founder.

“In 1988, we were all gung-ho and set up all these wonderful programs,” said Chris Luboff, waste-planning supervisor for Seattle Public Utilities (SPU). “We’re less aggressive about it now. We put resources and energy into it and expected it would last forever and ever. But you have to retain your attention to it.”

Greg Nickels reiterated the city’s commitment to recycling for the National Recycling Congress event, pointing out that SPU hopes to boost participation by helping businesses recycle food waste, reviewing commercial recycling and extending free curbside recycling to very small businesses.