Obama wants climate right for recycling

National recycling rates in the US have largely dropped in recent years. But President Barack Obama is determined to drive them back up in his wider fight against climate change. Katie Coyne reports

The US President, Barack Obama, has made climate change a top concern – he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize this year, in part, because of his commitment to tackling the issue. David Refkin, whose company advises the Obama administration, says climate change is right up there as a priority issue for the President, alongside stabilising the economy, public health insurance and conflict in the Middle East.

Refkin, president of Greenpath Sustainability Consultants, who spoke at the recent LARAC conference held in Liverpool, said: “It would be very easy for the President to step back from climate change now there is a lot of resistance … but he hasn’t forgotten about it.”

The exact details of any plan to tackle climate change in the US – and recycling’s role within this – is being battled out in Congress. However, Refkin says that so far national recycling rates have been “disappointing” and will need to dramatically improve as resources become scarce – particularly with a growing global “middle class” consumer.

On the positive front, US recycling rates for paper are up 57% from 39% in 1993.

However, recycling rates for aluminium cans are down 45% from the 65% rate 16 years ago while PET plastic stands at 24%, down from 37% over the same period. Refkin highlighted a number of factors affecting these rates – such as a lack of infrastructure and carbon value of recyclables, as well as a variability in markets for recyclates and tipping rates.

The commodity price of recyclates has also fallen. In August 2008, for example, the price of wastepaper tumbled from $150 tonne and settled to around $70 a tonne by July 2009. It’s not clear whether, and if so when, these prices will recover.

Refkin added that there was also a lack of public awareness and interest in sustainability and that a large proportion of the public view their country as having “unlimited natural resources”. In the US, for example, there are more cars than there are drivers – 251M compared with 196M, and the average new home size has jumped from 1,400 sq ft in 1970 to 2,300 sq ft in 2004.

Climate change denial

National polls differ on the exact percentages, but consistently show that significant portions of the population believe that climate change is not caused by human activity. Refkin believes that education around green issues and sustainability as a societal issue needs to be improved.

The US has container deposit legislation, but only across 11 states and these are often limited to containers for carbonated drinks. Deposits are typically five cents per container, yet attempts to expand these schemes have met “fierce opposition” according to Refkin. Meanwhile, the number of water bottles used in the US is set to grow to more than 54B by 2011.

Refkin suggested more partnership working with NGOs is a way forward, but a question mark hangs over the survival of one key organisation, the National Recycling Coalition. Set up in 1978, it promotes a range of goals to encourage recycling and is described as “the voice of recycling”.

Its membership attracts manufacturers and suppliers as well as recycling companies and professionals, and it advises on policy and public campaigns. Yet, the financial crisis has challenged the organisation and an attempt to keep it from bankruptcy by merging it with the Keep America Beautiful group failed.

Worryingly, Refkin warned that newspapers are in “dire trouble and they are the bedrock of kerbside recycling infrastructure.” He also pointed to North America’s forest industry, which is predicted to face tree shortages due to an infestation of the mountain pine beetle. The insect has already helped destroy huge areas of forest and its virulence is being blamed on climate change.

While the recession has helped to curb consumption and US consumers are beginning to question whether they need to consume resources in their previous quantities, national debt has increased and local government budgets have been squeezed, making it difficult for them to expand recycling programmes. Across North America there are positive policy initiatives involving Wal-Mart and other retailers in recycling schemes, extending producer responsibility and reducing packaging. But all eyes are on the Climate Change bills being negotiated in Congress, which will nail down the sort of action the Obama administration can take.

Katie Coyne is a freelance journalist

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