I”ve heard that there were only two curbside recycling programs in the country in the early 1970s

I”ve heard that there were only two curbside recycling programs in the country in the early 1970s. Where were they and how many are there now?

—Bonnie Emerick, Chicago, IL

According to Neil Seldman, president of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a non-profit that promotes sustainable communities, the first two programs were in Madison, Wisconsin and Marblehead, Massachusetts. Seldman says that many cities had source separation in the 1940s, largely because of the war effort, but that these efforts fizzled after the war. In 1967, Madison was the first city to re-establish curbside newspaper collection, by installing special racks on garbage trucks. Madison Street Superintendent Roger Goodwin says the pioneering newspaper program got started because the city was running out of landfill space. Madison also built one of the first waste-to-energy plants in 1974 for the same reason.

Marblehead Director of Public Health Wayne Attridge says its curbside program, which began in 1973 with the first Earth Day as inspiration, included bottles, cans and newspapers. “It was definitely innovative,” Attridge says. The local League of Women Voters launched the program, aided by the nation’s first Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recycling grant.

There are now close to 9,000 curbside programs, which aid in the recycling of 42 percent of all paper used, 40 percent of all plastic soft drink bottles, and 55 percent of all aluminum cans, according to the EPA”s Office of Municipal Solid Waste. There are at least 600 curbside programs in Wisconsin and 156 in Massachusetts today.

New York City made news in July of 2002 when Mayor Michael Bloomberg put the City”s curbside recycling program (for everything except paper) on hold for 18 months. Bloomberg reasoned that the project would save the City $56.6 million annually, and that 40 percent of the metal, glass and plastic collected was ultimately ending up in the trash anyway. But, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, New York City”s big savings failed to materialize, and the plastics recycling program resumed in July 2003. Glass recycling, as well as weekly pickups, will start again in April 2004.

CONTACT: Institute for Local Self-Reliance, (202) 232-4108, www.ilsr.org; Natural Resources Defense Council, (212) 727-2700, www.nrdc.org.