Catherine Zeman, Assistant Professor of Environmental Health and Director of the Recycling Reuse Technology Transfer Center
When the idea of recycling first caught on, Americans thought they had found a solution to overflowing landfills, polluted air and water. The thinking was, if we simply recycle and reuse, the amount of waste will be reduced and the environment will benefit. We have learned that solutions are not often that simple in a society as complex as ours. Recycling and reusing, by themselves, will not cure all our ills.
Some of the pieces of the solution are in place, such as regulations and regulatory assistance programs to encourage recycling, and environmental education in grades K-12. But a critical component must be dramatically strengthened if the recycling industry is to become self-sustaining: More practical uses must be found for recyclable material.
That means that to financially support the collection of municipal and industrial waste, there must be a strong market for recycled materials. One way to strengthen the market is to help business and industry answer questions related to using these materials: "Will incorporating this recycled material into our product affect its quality?" and "How will the manufacturing process have to be altered to accommodate the material?"
The Materials Testing Service (MTS) at the University of Northern Iowa was established, in large part, to answer such questions. Part of UNIÍs Recycling and Reuse Technology Transfer Center , MTS seeks practical, real-world solutions for industrial waste. It was able to assist a manufacturer of recreational vehicle trailers in evaluating the effectiveness of recycled materials in its product line.
As part of the effort to strengthen markets for recycled materials, RRTTC provides grants for high-risk, high-payoff research in this area. Projects seek solutions to such environmental challenges as diminishing landfill space, increasing hazardous waste-generation rates and resource scarcity. MTS then helps businesses implement these practices.
While the need for programs such as these is critical, the trend is for states to cut funding for environmental research. Not surprisingly, many states have been unable to meet overly optimistic waste-diversion goals. In Washington state, for example, the legislature in 1996 eliminated funding for the Clean Washington Center, which was established to promote recycling efforts. Similar programs on the local level were also curtailed. Interestingly, the recycling rate in the state dropped below 33 percent before recovering slightly.
Statistics show that 43 states have not succeeded in meeting their waste-diversion goals. Iowa is one of them. Clearly, there is a need to develop new technologies, not just regulatory assistance and marketing programs. In Iowa, solid waste and the consumption of natural resources are on the rise.
To counteract this trend, we need to promote programs such as RRTTCand its MTS that lead in finding creative and practical ways to use recycled materials and provide economic paybacks.
The situation in Iowa may not seem critical because our landfills are not yet overflowing and nonrenewable resources are still relatively cheap. But action needs to be taken now to guarantee our quality of life. Let's put our know-how to work and make recycling as self-sustaining as possible. If state and federal governments make a commitment to strengthening the market for recycled goods by supporting research, technical assistance and purchasing mandates, we can create a viable system for the 21st century.