With cities and counties strapped for money and often unable to expand recycling beyond the basics - newspapers, soda cans and plastic bottles - recycling advocates are turning to a new partner to advance the next frontier in their cause: corporate America.
Companies from Nike Inc. to Dell Computer Corp. to Panasonic have begun programs to recycle old or unwanted materials in their manufacturing processes, and there's potential for more growth in that area, according to members of the National Recycling Coalition, which is holding a "recycling congress" in Baltimore this week.
"What we haven't done very well in recycling is we haven't looked beyond cans and bottles," said Kate Krebs, executive director of the Washington nonprofit group promoting recycling.
About 1,000 people are expected to attend the conference through Wednesday. At the Baltimore Convention Center yesterday, vendors sold recycling bins made from recycled milk cartons, and experts instructed participants how to recycle carpet or turn dinner leftovers into yard compost.
Corporations weren't traditionally quick to buy into recycling - and many still aren't - because it can be costly. But some companies are seeing some benefits, from streamlining manufacturing processes to public relations gains.
Recycling proponents who may have seen corporations as the enemy are coming to realize that the private sector at times has greater engineering expertise and capital to devise solutions than the public sector on which they have typically relied.
Engineers at Dell Inc. deduced that some of the metals in its computers can be reused for earrings and caps for teeth. Other materials are used in road surfaces, and glass can be reused in new computer monitors. Dell also has a partnership with the National Cristina Foundation in Greenwich, Conn., which gives computers to organizations that train people with special needs.
"At this point it's not a big revenue generator," said Pat Nathan, sustainable business director for Dell, the top seller of personal computers. "It's more of a break-even situation. As we get more volume, that will improve."
Dell, she said, started looking at recycling programs because some of its investors asked about the environmental policies of the company.
Nike, as part of its reuse-a-shoe program, breaks down old sneakers it receives through recycling centers. It sends the material to be turned into turf for playgrounds, running tracks, basketball and tennis courts, and football and soccer fields.
Nike donates the turf made from sneakers to Boys and Girls Clubs of America, recreation centers, community playgrounds and other nonprofits. More than 150 athletic fields have been built during the 10-year-old program. More than 2 million pairs of sneakers are recycled a year.
Panasonic, in partnership with recycling centers around the country, reuses certain television parts.
In 2001, the last year for which figures are available, 30 percent of all waste was recycled, double the amount of a decade earlier, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
The William S. Baer School in Northwest Baltimore had golf tee boxes made from old sneakers, thanks to Nike's program. In Washington, two Boys and Girls clubs and an apartment complex have gotten new basketball courts and a playground through the program as well.
"It's a way for us to be a good corporate citizen and give back to the community," said Lee Weinstein, global director of corporate responsibility communications for Nike, which has struggled to improve its image in light of complaints about its labor practices overseas.