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Recycling rate drops in county

Island County residents are recycling less and throwing more waste into the garbage.

This fact, borne out by a recent state study, has Jerry Mingo, the director of the county's recycling and hazardous waste programs, a bit concerned.

"What I see is that the gap between Island County's recycling rate and the overall state rate is widening," Mingo said Thursday. "We used to be just about the same as the state rate, but we're actually slipping backward now."

A recent report issued by the state Department of Ecology shows that the statewide recycling rate rose from 35 to 37 percent from 2000 to 2001, although the numbers for inorganic materials such as newspaper, glass and metals actually went down.

In Island County, residents recycled 31 percent of their garbage, which is 6 percentage points below the state average. The state and county still recycle at a rate greater than the national average of 30 percent, but nowhere near the Department of Ecology's goal of 50 percent.

Cullen Stephenson, who manages Ecology's solid waste program, recently said "it's hard to be cheery" about the decline in recycling numbers for inorganics throughout the state.

In Island County, the drop in recycling appears to be matched by an increase in the overall amount of municipal solid waste. Island County Solid Waste manager David Bonvouloir said it's difficult to put a positive spin on the current recycling numbers.

"While we would like to believe that this recycle rate is a reflection that county residents are 'getting the message' regarding smart shopping, reusing and other waste reduction measures, the 7 percent trash tonnage increase does not support such a position," Bonvouloir said.

Mingo said other factors are contributing to a slackening in recycling, both statewide and in Island County. He said the public perception of recycling has suffered negative press over high cost of recycling programs. Low market prices for recycleable materials may also be a factor.

Mingo called these largely economic factors "indirect impacts" which nonetheless could affect the way people deal with their garbage.

"The market price for collected materials has been depressed for several years now," Mingo said. "We're just right now seeing some minor hopeful trends."

Mingo pointed out, however, that the drop off in recycling rates can't be attributed to a lack of access to recycling facilities throughout the county. Altogether, there are six public and private recycling centers serving Whidbey and Camano islands, with two more centers serving military personnel.

"The infrastructure's there," Mingo said. "It's alarming to see the recycle tonnage and rate decreasing while there is a convenient collection infrastructure in place to serve island residents."

Despite the gloomy forecast, Mingo said he has faith in the local population's ability to begin recycling more vigorously.

"I have a lot of confidence," Mingo said. "Whidbey Island's an educated population. I think we're in tune with the environment here."

Mingo said he's hoping the simple fact of a declining recycling rate will spur people to pick up the pace and "smoke" the state average. The trick, he added, is for folks to "actually adopt somewhat of a competitive attitude about it."

Mingo, who splits his time between coordinating hazardous waste and recycling programs, said the competitive posture is another way of alerting citizens to the situation and asking everyone to pitch in.

"What I am hoping is that people will contemplate the fact that we're sliding below the state recycling rate, and that will become unacceptable to them," he said. "People just need to think about their stewardship a little bit and avail themselves of the infrastructure that's there."

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