By SALLY DENEEN
If you haven't covered recycling for a while, you – and your audience – might be surprised by how things have changed and the variety of new angles to explore.
The number of curbside recycling programs now surpasses 9,000. Yet, a greater percentage of recyclable plastic bottles and aluminum cans are landing in the garbage.
Here's another odd disconnect that may not bode well for recycling: North American manufacturers want more recyclables and fear they won't get them. Yet, a Minnesota survey found almost three-quarters of Minnesotans say there isn't a need to recycle more cans, bottles and paper.
And get this: "The more education you have, the more likely you are to be cynical about recycling," said Paul Gardner, executive director, Recycling Association of Minnesota.
Gardner surmises that educated consumers are recalling the early 1990s, when local recycling programs picked up more discards than manufacturers could handle.
But over the last decade, the paper, plastic, glass, aluminum and steel industries invested billions in new equipment to handle recyclables. Some people still think there's a glut, though.
Gardner spends some time combating arguments posed in occasional anti-recycling articles such as "Recycle This!" (Weekly Standard, January 2006). Most famous was the original story – "Recycling Is Garbage," a 1996 cover story in The New York Times Sunday magazine. Libertarian writer John Tierney argued that recycling could be "the most wasteful activity in modern America."
"Recycling does sometimes make sense – for some materials in some places at some times," Tierney wrote. "But the simplest and cheapest option is usually to bury garbage in an environmentally safe landfill… There's no reason to make recycling a legal or moral imperative." When The American Prospect in 2001 profiled Tierney and asked about that story, he said: "I could write something about the good side of recycling. And there are some benefits. But everybody else writes that."
Jerry Powell, editor of Resource Recycling magazine, calls arguments against recycling "ill-founded," because "recycling is a major source of raw materials."
"Without recycling, given current virgin raw material supplies, we could not print the daily newspaper, build a car or ship a product in a cardboard box. Recycling is not some feel-good activity," Powell said. "It is one of the backbones of global economic development. With recycling levels exceeding 50 percent for many materials (corrugated cartons, steel, aluminum, etc.), materials recovery and utilization are key ingredients to industrial growth and stability."
OK, that's the background.
What about story angles? Recycling could be a whole beat, but here are a few ideas:
• Blame the bottled water craze. "Americans' thirst for portable water is behind drop in recycling rate," reads a secondary headline above SEJer Miguel Llanos'2005 article for MSNBC.com. Most bottled water is consumed in parks and other places where there isn't recycling. (See story: www.msnbc.msn.com/  id/5279230/)
• Can cities become garbage-free? San Francisco aims for 100 percent diversion by 2020; it's among a handful of communities making "zero waste" a guiding principle, including Del Norte, Calif., and Seattle. "We are now treating waste as a resource," said Seattle councilmember Richard Conlin. San Francisco has banned foam restaurant take-out containers and supermarket plastic shopping bags, ending the tired question: paper or plastic? The Seattle Post-Intelligencer's Kathy Mulady recently followed a Seattle household's garbage all the way to its landfill destination in Oregon: http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/local/323082_trashtrain10.html. 
• Congress long ago ordered the Commerce Department to stimulate U.S. markets for recycled materials, but the department is falling down on the job, says a December 2006 Government Accountability Office report (www.gao.gov/new.items/  d0737.pdf/). It's finding markets in foreign nations like China instead. "…[T]he agency is not taking any actions to stimulate domestic markets and, therefore, is not fully meeting its responsibilities under RCRA (Resource Conservation and Recovery Act) subtitle E," the GAO reported.
• Is your city on the path to meet the national recycling goal of 35 percent by 2008? How does it stack up against other cities? In the same GAO report mentioned above, Atlanta reported a modest recycling goal – 26 percent by 2015. Chicago and New York reported their recycling goals are 25 percent; Philadelphia, 35 percent. Denver aims for 30 percent waste diversion by 2011. Portland, Ore., aims higher with a 75 percent goal by 2015.
• In Kamikatsu, Japan, residents sort trash into 44 categories, yet the U.S. trend is toward "single-stream" recycling – meaning all recyclables go into one curbside bin. This process lowers the cost of service, so "it's here to stay," predicts Resource Recycling's Powell. Trouble is, the quality of recyclables slips due to residues and contamination. Example: A mill that buys newsprint wants newsprint; it doesn't want cardboard mistakenly mixed in. According to Susan Kinsella, executive director of Conservatree, contamination in single-stream systems prompts landfilling of tons of valuable aluminum, plastic and glass each day.
In the end, recycling may seem old hat to you, but it's every man's issue, the environment topic that most anyone in your audience can relate to, even those who never go to the woods or give pollution a second thought.
SEJ member Sally Deneen explored recycling in her 2006 E Magazine cover article "How To Recycle Practically Anything".
• Best statistical sources, according to GAO: EPA report, "Municipal Solid Waste in the United States: Facts and Figures" (www.epa.gov/msw/ msw99.htm ); and BioCycle Magazine's "The State of Garbage in America" (www.jgpress.com/  archives/_free/000848.html)
• Resource Recycling Magazine (www.resource-recycling . com) covers the industry.
• Container Recycling Institute (www.container-recycling . org), a nonprofit pro-recycling organization, offers statistical charts and a bottle-bill resource guide. It's pushing a "zero beverage container waste by 2020" campaIGN.
• Minnesota survey: http://tinyurl.com/3b9obs 
**From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Fall 2007 issue.