Time for a national recycling mandate

As strange as it sounds, the United States does not have a national law that mandates recycling. Instead, Washington, D.C. has delegated the matter to local jurisdictions and in the process, it created a mess. There’s no uniformity and no penalty structure for those who does not follow the recycling guidelines set forward by either cities and/or states.

For example, a number of U.S. states, including California, have passed laws that establish deposits or refund values on beverage containers while other jurisdictions rely on recycling goals or landfill bans of recyclable materials. At the local level, big cities such as New York City have created laws that enforce fines upon citizens who throw away certain recyclable materials. Still, more is needed.

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According to a recent report issued by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), an average person produces around 4.5 pounds of waste a day. That’s a lot of disposable material.

In Puerto Rico we have implemented several regulations regarding recycling, but no clear law or much less penalties for noncompliance have been introduced.

As a nation, we need to set forward a strategic vision for this problem. First, there’s should be a national landfill ban on recyclable material. Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina and Wisconsin have already such prohibitions in place and they appear to be working.

We need to implement this ban by no later than 2020, to start having a cleaner nation by the middle of the century.

Next, let's pass laws that establish deposits or refund values on beverage containers to promote reuse and recycling.

Beside those steps, the most important decision we can make is the establishment of a national mandate. Recyclable material would be  prohibited from all garbage centers.

Arguably, one of the most successful recycling mandates currently implemented in the U,S. is the one in Seattle. The city passed its mandatory recycling law in 2006 as a way to counter declining recycling rates there. Recyclables are now prohibited from both residential and business garbage. Businesses must sort for recycling all paper, cardboard and yard waste. Households must recycle all basic recyclables, such as paper, cardboard, aluminum, glass and plastic.

New York City is perhaps the most famous case of a city putting recycling to the economic test. In 2002 city leaders decided to stop its least cost-effective recycling programs (plastic and glass). But rising landfill costs ate up the $39 million savings expected.

As a result, the city reinstated plastic and glass recycling and committed to a 20-year contract with one of the country’s largest private recycling firms, which built a state-of-the art facility along South Brooklyn’s waterfront.

Mandatory recycling is a hard sell in the United States, where our economy runs largely along free market lines.  But a national mandate is more than important, it’s imperative, if we are going to deal with the matter of waste disposal seriously. Its time Congress recognizes this.

Llerandi-Cruz is a member of the Puerto Rico State House of Representatives.