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Recycling: The View from the White House

The United States is far and away the greatest generator of wastes of any nation on earth. Every year American consumers produce 200 million tons of post-consumer waste, and each American produces 4.5 pounds of trash per day. One of the most effective solutions to this problem is recycling. By using what would otherwise be thrown away, recycling eases the burden on landfills and incinerators while at the same time saving money, creating jobs, and protecting the environment.

President Clinton and Vice President Gore are committed to promoting recycling as part of a practical solution to management of solid waste. In 1993 President Clinton significantly strengthened the federal government's "green" procurement efforts by signing Executive Order 12873 to promote recycling and waste prevention within the government. This effort has helped to create jobs, conserve natural resources, and forge important partnerships with businesses, communities, and state and local governments.

As the single largest consumer of goods, products, and services in the United States, the federal government can have a significant stimulus effect on markets for products made from recycled materials. Recycling depends on market development, specifically for products manufactured from recovered waste. For this reason the executive order directed all agencies of the government to use only office paper containing 20 percent post-consumer content, with the level increasing to 30 percent post-consumer content by 1999.

Since the enactment of the order, federal procurement of recycled products has increased by more than 35 percent from $233 million in 1993 to $316 million in 1995. Total revenue in 1995 for sales of recyclables was estimated at $18.5 million. The Administration is committed to making the Federal government not only the number one recycler in the nation, but also the number one purchaser of recycled content products.

The federal government's efforts to buy recycled products have helped to create and sustain markets for the roughly 7,500 community recycling programs in America, affecting almost 50 percent of the population. In addition to adopting curbside recycling programs, more than 100 cities and numerous state and local governments have followed the President's lead and passed legislation or proclamations modeled on Executive Order 12873. Collection programs instituted by government and communities have diverted millions of tons of recycled materials from the waste stream.

Today more governments, businesses, and households are collecting discards for recycling and are receiving recycled materials than ever before. But we can do more. Despite being the world's largest consumer, the United States' current recycling rate of 25 percent is lower than other industrialized countries such as Japan and Germany. Because of this, and because of the strong commitment of communities across the country to recycling, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently announced its intent to propose increasing the nationwide recycling goal from 25 to 35 percent by the year 2005.

In addition to the new goals proposed by EPA, President Clinton's Council On Sustainable Development (PCSD) recently released its Task Force report on consumption that offers recommendations for developing a national strategy for reducing waste and promoting recycling. The Task Force specifically considered the need to create large-scale economic conditions that enable us to make recycling work and provide responsible consumer products. The recommendations include: educating citizens about consumer practices and choices that will lead to sustainable consumption patterns and lifestyles in accord with a stewardship ethic; encouraging manufacturers to insure appropriate recycling, reuse, and disposal of all packaging, making it returnable and certifying it for compatibility with a sustainable economy; and issuing federal guidelines and models for municipal volume-based and weight-based household waste collection systems and curbside recycling programs.

Most of these goals will be met locally, where solid waste collections are conducted. The Task Force, therefore, calls on citizens and communities to become even more active and engaged. At the federal level, we will work in partnership with local communities and serve them by sharing lessons and experiences learned from around the country.

In order to meet these challenges we need to create the opportunity for people to work together to improve the quality of their surroundings and strengthen the fabric of their communities. Consumer waste is a challenge and a problem today. But, by engaging governments, businesses, and communities across the country, recycling offers us environmental, economic, and social opportunities that are promising indeed!

Kathleen A. McGinty
Chair, President's Council on Environmental Quality

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