Rural recycling programs - supported by increasing environmental awareness among rural residents and pushed by state waste-reduction enforcement mandates - are coming into their own with strategies that focus on staffed collection centers, education and collective marketing.

Pushed now by the scheduled closing of local landfills under federal requirements, rural communities and activists are looking for alternate ways to reduce waste and find new uses both in the home and in distant markets for materials ranging from metal and paper to glass, tires, oil and plastics.

But while urban and suburban recycling in most areas is depending on the increasing levels of public funding, rural recycling still continues to be primarily a volunteer-driven phenomenon very much like the not-for-profit programs which flourished in cities and towns throughout most of the 1970s and 1980s. The result is wide variations between regions in the structure of rural recycling and the success of the recycling efforts.

"Some people and some places are much more involved, while other areas are not that interested," said Jim Malia, director of the Rural Solid Waste Management Center in Knoxville, Tenn., which was recently established by the Tennessee Valley Authority. "There is a sense of people wanting to do the right thing but they are not always sure what that is. Sometimes recycling is not a convenient alternative so it does not always get the attention it might deserve."

In fact, according to Susan Hubbard, northwest Arkansas regional recycling coordinator for the Arkansas Department of Pollution Control, the most successful rural recycling programs at present are found primarily in areas where economic activities other than agriculture are available to underpin the recycling efforts.

In the state of Arkansas, for example, areas with economic foundations in tourist trade and retirement housing have generated the most success in establishing comprehensive recycling collection and marketing efforts.

Wide variations also continue between the mandates that state governments place on rural recycling, with some setting timetables for collection of specified volumes or percentages of recyclable materials while others continue to make involvement in recycling programs voluntary.

Rural Challenges In contrast to urban programs, rural recycling is characterized by large hauling distances. One hauler in Washington cited by Jeanne F. Becker of Becker Associates Inc., Deerfield, Ill., operates routes covering more than 120 miles each, compared to average suburban routes of 30 miles.

Low population density is also a consideration, with 75 of the 102 counties in Illinois having 40 or fewer people per square mile, while small settlements of 50 to 150 homes may be 10 or more miles apart.

Low population density also results in lower waste generation and high usage of burn barrels. As much as 75 percent of rural residential waste is burned, according to one hauler's estimate in Wisconsin. Other home waste management techniques include burning of old newspapers in wood stoves, home composting and, in particularly remote locations, farm dump sites.

"Burn barrels and trash piles are probably some of the hardest issues to deal with," said Anthony E. Mitchell, a waste planner with the Waste Technology Research and Advisement Center in Philadelphia. Education efforts, said the consultants, must focus on emissions and abatement problems of uncontrolled burning and dumping and must use different forums - such as weekly newspapers, local shopping and meeting locations and word of mouth - than are commonly used in urban and suburban programs.

Also critical to the success of rural recycling programs is the strategy used in collection. Initial recycling efforts in rural areas predominantly made use of collection boxes scattered throughout large areas of rural counties. But the maintenance problems associated with those boxes have driven most programs to convert to staffed convenience centers where both recyclables and mixed waste are collected for transport to more distant landfills, said Jeremy O'Brien, a project manager for HDR Engineering Inc. in Charlotte, N.C.

The rural convenience centers are increasingly making use of weight- or volume-based charges for disposal of mixed waste which are offset by incentive payments for recyclables. "There are real economic incentives for rural areas to recycle," O'Brien said, noting that the costs of waste disposal have become a substantial part of local budgets. Many governmental units in rural areas have decided they cannot afford the cost of building a Subtitle D landfill and instead are building transfer stations to move materials to regional private landfills along with associated recycling facilities.

Equipment Needs Just about every rural program must determine its own requirements for equipment needed for collecting, sorting and transporting recyclables. Strategies can involve using different trucks for different commodities, trucks with multiple bins, sorting of materials at local sheltered workshops, and the use of converted farm equipment for sorting and initial processing of materials like newspaper and mixed glass. For example, Pepin County, Wis., started with equal-sized compartments in a 30-yard roll-off container used for collecting glass but later switched to appropriate sized compartments for the 10 percent green, 25 percent brown and 65 percent clear mixture of glass collected.

"We're still looking for other alternatives," said Terry Mesch, coordinator of the county's 7,105-resident solid waste program. He noted that a solid waste composting facility and cheaper alternatives than the 75-mile haul to a privately operated landfill are being studied.

Ultimately, the techniques used in rural recycling all the way to curbside or "mailbox-side" collection are very similar to those used in urban and suburban recycling. But the rural programs, particularly in such matters as collecting materials over large geographic areas, must be very careful in analyzing the costs of the techniques that are used.

"In an urban area, if a refuse collection truck or recyclables collection truck gets to the end of its route and has to deadhead back, it's not nearly as costly as in a rural area," said Philip Prete, principal of Prete Wilmot Associates, Durham, N.C. "You have to figure out ways to collect on the way out and on the way back with a single crew and single truck. Once you get into the truly rural programs, the trend is toward centralized drop off centers."

Market Problems Increasingly, as with urban and suburban programs, rural programs face challenges in finding markets for the materials they have collected. For rural areas, the greatest difficulties involve low prices and long distances to markets, so efforts are made to find and create new markets close to home. Examples include using old newspaper for soil preparation and animal bedding and reusing glass as art glass or aggregated, an alternative to stone in paving materials.

Rural areas have viewed steel and aluminum can markets as among their most stable during the past three years of glutted recyclables markets and recessionary conditions, although regional and market-wide disruptions continue to be felt.

"Aluminum can recycling has been a mainstay and the most obvious item to recycle," said Gary J. Olson, executive director of the Southwest Public Recycling Association (SPRA), Tucson, Ariz., a cooperative marketing organization for cities and counties in five Southwestern states.

The SPRA effort, which initially is targeting the estimated 292 million pounds of cans generated annually by the five-state region's 11.7 million residents, is one of the most ambitious examples of a swelling trend among rural areas to work together and in most cases work with private industry to tackle looming problems facing recycling markets.

Cooperative marketing, according to the leaders of the movement, is bringing into the local government's hands an increased influence on markets for metals, glass, paper and plastics that in the past have been weakened by growing supplies of the materials or in some cases - such as that of the Southwest - were nearly non-existent.

The efforts have drawn some criticism from private industry officials who have questioned the need for governments to get involved in large-scale marketing efforts. But officials involved in setting up and consulting with the cooperatives, while emphasizing the need to work with private industry, say that the collective efforts are needed to develop their rural recycling programs.

While only one of the U.S. recycling cooperatives is fully established (a program set up in New Hampshire in 1982), more than 100 new efforts in the United States and Canada are being developed or have been proposed, according to a survey prepared by participants in the rural recyclers network of the National Recycling Coalition (NRC). Results of the survey were distributed in October as part of an emphasis on rural recycling at the NRC's National Recycling Congress in Nashville.

National guidelines for additional programs are being developed with assistance from the Environmental Protection Agency and such public/private groups as the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the International City and County Management Association and the Steel Can Recycling Institute.

SPRA's Experience The steel can marketing program, undertaken by the SPRA in Tucson, shows the market development process used by the cooperatives, as well as the hurdles they face.

Olson said that the association early on had identified a number of potential markets for steel cans in its area, including Nucor Corp.'s Utah plant, CF&I Steel in Pueblo, Colo., Border Steel in El Paso, Texas, and a Proler International detinning operation in northern Arizona.

Based on current shipping and can consumption patterns, SPRA expected to negotiate either an overall contract or a series of contracts for a combination of collection, transportation, brokering, buying and recycling for the cans from cities participating in the cooperative, Olson said.

Different areas within the SPRA region were recycling at different rates and Olson estimated that overall steel can recycling is currently less than 10 percent of the potential across the region, but is expected to grow if markets can be developed.

SPRA has recently set up a contract with Proler International Corp., Houston, to sell them the current 3,500 to 4,500 tons of steel cans collected each month by the communities SPRA serves. Because of the wide distances to market involved in the Southwest U.S., the SPRA area is currently far below national averages of steel cans collected and believes it can easily double the collection volume by working with the Proler contract, Olson said.

"Steel can freight is always a problem given that the value is relatively low and you've sometimes got to move it a ways," said Jack Force, general manager for western U.S. can programs of Proler, which operates detinning facilities in Coolidge, Ariz., Stockton, Calif., and Seattle.

The Southwestern marketing cooperative next plans to address problems finding markets for glass, plastics, cardboard and paper, while eventually intending to look at aluminum as well, added Olson, who until 1991 was executive director of the similarly organized New Hampshire Resource Recovery Association (NHRRA).

"Trash has gone from a liability to an asset and we're hoping to take advantage of that," Olson said, noting advantages including low freight backhaul rates in the region, which imports most of its food and other consumer goods. "Steel cans will give us an idea of how the system will work," he said.

The size of areas involved in cooperative marketing efforts vary widely. Olson noted that in his previous job in New Hampshire, the geographic area of that state would fit into one county, Arizona's Yavapai, of the SPRA region.

"We're generally seeing an incredible level of interest in cooperative marketing among both rural and urban communities," said Mary Kohrell, a recycling markets specialist in the cooperative extension services unit at the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay. "There is a mystique that it's going to solve all their marketing problems. What we have to try to get them to understand is what cooperatives can do and what they can't do."

Barriers To Cooperation Among the challenges facing some cooperatives, according to Kohrell and others, is local politics. "Cooperative marketing is incredibly popular as a recycling solution in rural areas, but it is also becoming problematic in itself because most programs are facing a crisis of not having enough money to keep the program going," Kohrell said. "Money is a big problem and local politics is a bigger problem."

Lola Schoenrich, a community development specialist with the Minnesota Project, St. Paul, Minn., has been working on case studies of cooperative marketing programs for recyclables, and agrees that the two biggest challenges to cooperatives are politics and funding. "It's hard for people to work together," she said. "Local political jurisdictions are not designed to work together. It has to do with the different personalities. Sometimes politicians can work together, and sometimes they can't."

The cooperative marketing effort, Olson, Kohrell and officials said, also has to emphasize the importance of involving private sector companies, who have in many cases had years of experience in marketing recyclable materials, in the development of the public sector marketing efforts. Some suggested that government need only get involved when private sector infrastructures for collection and marketing don't already exist.

"The private sector should be viewed by the public sector as a partner. We have to get rid of the policy barriers to make it happen," Olson said.

Another issue being faced in some regions is the quality of material brought to market by municipalities. Kohrell noted that a growing dichotomy is seen between recycling program managers who say they can't find a market for their materials and end users who say they can't get enough recyclables to supply their production lines.

The problem, Kohrell suggested, is that the recycling programs are not paying adequate attention to the quality of the collected materials they are trying to market. This has been seen in steel cans going to Wisconsin foundries that arrived baled with shredded paper, engine parts, plastics and materials that apparently remained in balers or on materials recycling facility (MRF) floors and were picked up when the cans were processed, she said.

These types of problems, according to Kohrell, can be corrected relatively inexpensively through improved housekeeping operations at the MRFs. More expensive solutions for meeting the requirements of some end users require the purchase of balers costing $250,000 or more.

Kohrell noted that aluminum can users also are cracking down on quality as more communities are collecting them and being increasingly sloppy about such concerns as completely emptying the cans and avoiding gravel and other materials when scooping them up for shipment.

"Local government has to be doing the education to collect high quality material," Kohrell said. "They need to pay attention to the quality of the material produced. A rural program is the kind of situation where they might not be doing anything at all to address quality."