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The State of Nevada is rethinking the way it throws away trash this month. It's updating a waste management plan for the first time in years as required by state law. It'll recommend changes to policy from landfill management to recycling. Managers say there's big changes ahead and lots of room for improvement. As KNPR's Ky Plaskon reports, recycling rates for instance here lag at almost half the national average.
PLASKON: EPA administrator Mike Leavitt reminisced in Las Vegas in May about the evolution of his family's recycling from a plastic sack to the big blue bins that are common in many cities these days
LEAVITT: Our children came home and taught us and hence the plastic sack and the cans. It's an American ethic that has extended from a blue sack to a big blue barrel and now we extend it to America's shopping center industry.
PLASKON: Speaking to the International Conference of Shopping Centers in Las Vegas, he hoped that under a new partnership between malls and the EPA. The plan is to get shopping centers to compete for awards in recycling - and ideally the promotional effort of the mall to recycle would trickle down to the patrons. At the Boulevard Mall, there is room for improvement among shoppers.
PLASKON: 21-year-old UNLV student, Jay doesn't recycle because her parents didn't. She's skeptical of the EPA's plan.
JAY: If they started young enough, I don't think college age kids like us will start just because.
PLASKON: For others recycling just isn't on the radar screen.
UNKNOWN: Because they don't believe it where we come from.
PLASKON: 27 year old Las Vegan Todd Neary thinks getting malls into recycling is a good idea.
NEARY: I am probably the only one that is on my block that's doing it. If more people started doing it there would be less trash and it would go in the right place so . . .
PLASKON: In a 2002 stakeholder survey by the state, respondents said there should be a more concerted effort to educate the public. But Jay at the Boulevard Mall says there is something more practical than education when it comes to her bottles and cans.
JAY: To pick it up and me not having to go somewhere and dump it."
PLASKON: While every single family residence in the Las Vegas and Carson Valleys can put their recyclables out on the curb and have them picked up, Jay can't. Franchise agreements with Republic Services in both Valleys don't require them to pick up recyclables at apartments. The Recycling Coordinator for the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection, David Friedman, knows that's a problem, especially because there is only one drop-off point for recyclables in Las Vegas.
FRIEDMAN: And so for someone who lives in an apartment in Henderson it becomes kind of ludicrous for someone to drive 10 miles and that's not true in Washoe County and Carson City.
PLASKON: The answer to increasing recycling rates in Las Vegas isn't complicated.
FRIEDMAN: I think if Las Vegas would see a great increase. If we talk about low hanging fruit, I think convenience for people who don't otherwise have the service available to them is huge."
PLASKON: The national goal is to recycle just over a third of all trash. Carson Valley and Douglass County recycle about 20 percent while Las Vegas hovers at only 13 percent. Freedman says southern Nevada produces so much garbage and recycles so little, it is responsible for dragging down the state's average to 16 percent and says it's a cultural difference: Southern Nevadans just don't care as much. Even if Las Vegas were inundated with recycling bins and children went home from malls and convinced their parents to recycle, it would barely dent the overall picture of garbage that could be recycled. According to the EPA, households produce only 2 percent of all garbage. 98 percent comes from industry and businesses, malls among them. Doug Jostlin is Environmental Manager with the Clark County Health District.
JOSTLIN: If you look at businesses, there is a lot of room for improvement there, just like there is a lot of room for improvement on the residential side.
PLASKON: He tries to track recycling in Southern Nevada and says that businesses are uncooperative when he asks them: 'Hw much do you recycle every year?
JOSTLIN: This is all voluntary I send out a report and I ask companies to tell me what they have done and I have not got a good response, I am going to have to shake a tree to get people who have not sent in a number.
PLASKON: Jostlin's barely begun to scratch the surface of Nevada policies that discourage recycling he says. For instance, the state's 25 percent recycling goal isn't mandatory and every city has its own regulations and waste management agreements that conflict with development of recycling programs. He says the state needs a full-time coordinator that could coordinate jurisdictions, lobby for policy changes and direct businesses that want to recycle. Without an organized effort, today, recycling isn't impossible for businesses, but it is expensive. MGM properties spend hundreds of thousands of dollars recycling a half-million tons of garbage every month. Jeanette Friedman owner of Silver Dollar Recycling caters to smaller businesses. She explains why it's so tough to connect with someone who will use the recycled material.
FRIEDMAN: It is just basically the shipping cost to get it there if we cant make a profit we are not Styrofoam and plastic is very difficult
PLASKON: Jostlin says a coordinator could make recycling more financially palatable for businesses by helping them find markets for their recyclables.
JOSTLIN: So when you have a company that collects recyclables and you have a guy down the street who turns plastic bags into widgets you create a relationship there that is self-sustaining.
PLASKON: Though a local recycling industry is virtually non-existent, you don't have to look fare to see the potential, even for Styrofoam. RASTRA, an Arizona company is recycling Styrofoam into concrete building blocks. Karl Holik is the owner.
HOLIK: So we have kind of like a structure that is kind of like a very tight rice crispy this material actually has the advantage that is good insulation and 85 percent of polystyrene is recycled but it makes it non-combustible with a fire rating with more than 4 hours.
PLASKON: Holik held a private stock offering last month and is planning three new plants this year, but none in fast-growing southern Nevada. Block producers here continue to use more expensive virgin Styrofoam. Marrying block producers with recyclers is the kind of relationships a recycling coordinator could help build. But while officials want a coordinator, they don't want the responsibility. The state says the position should be located in the Clark County Health District, but Jostlin opposes that because he sees a conflict between enforcing health codes and promoting recycling. He'd go along with it though if public comment or state officials force him to.
JOSTLIN: If ultimately the decision was that this department is suited to do it I would find a way to make it work. I just find that could be a very tenuous position to be in. Ultimately we may find that right here is the best place to put it and if the objectives were clearly defined I might find myself in favor of it.
PLASKON: While other states are vigorously recycling to increase the life of their landfill, how long it will last, there's little pressure in Southern Nevada to do the same because there is so much land to fill with garbage. Southern Nevada's APEX landfill will last a lifetime Jostlin says.
JOSTLIN: Estimates change as tonages change but you are probably looking at 60-70 years before anyone is looking at the What are we going to do decision tree.
PLASKON: The public is however at a fork in the decision tree. A draft report of the state's waste management plan will be released this month for public review and comment. A preliminary report shows that despite family and business efforts to recycle, Nevada continues to import trash at rates that cancel out efforts to recycle - a trend that is expected to continue.
Ky Plaskon, News 88-9, KNPR.