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Dear EarthTalk: What tax or other government incentives are there out there for buying green – for individuals as well as businesses?

There has never been a better time than now to tap into a laundry list of tax rebates and other financial incentives designed to encourage individuals and businesses to go the greener mile. At the federal level in the U.S., individuals can reap the rewards of no less than eight different financial incentives ranging from tax credits and home loans for replacing windows and installing insulation around the house to tax rebates for purchasing a hybrid car or hooking up a solar hot water heater.

Besides these federal incentives, nearly every U.S. state has additional state or local incentives available. Many require utilities to rebate consumers who save electricity. Some utilities even offer “net metering,” whereby consumers who generate some of their power through rooftop solar panels or other technologies can sell electricity back to the utility, thus reducing or zeroing out their electric bill – even earning money.

Many financial incentives are in place for businesses, as well. At the federal level, examples include an energy-efficient commercial buildings tax deduction, a business energy reduction tax credit, an energy-efficient appliance tax credit for manufacturers, and a new energy-efficient tax credit for green-savvy builders.

At the state level, many are eager to attract renewable energy companies to their region and offer tax breaks to get them there. Washington State, for example, charges no sales tax on renewable energy equipment produced or sold there. And some forward-thinking cities are beginning to offer “density bonuses” and green building incentives to developers and builders to encourage sustainable land use.

The best place to look for what’s available is to steer your web browser to the free online Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency (DSIRE), a comprehensive source of information on state, local, utility, and federal incentives that promote renewable energy and energy efficiency. DSIRE is a federally funded project of the Interstate Renewable Energy Council, whose membership includes state and local government agencies, national laboratories, renewable energy companies, and advocacy groups. dsireusa.org

Dear EarthTalk: I can’t understand why it is not mandatory to recycle in the U.S. In my home we recycle 80 percent and toss 20 percent and I am trying to improve those percentages. What needs to happen to make recycling the law of the land?

Mandatory recycling is a hard sell in the U.S., where the economy runs largely along free market lines and landfilling waste remains inexpensive and efficient. When the research firm Franklin Associates examined the issue a decade ago, it found that the value of the materials recovered from curbside recycling was far less than the extra costs of collection, transportation, sorting, and processing incurred by municipalities.

Plain and simple, recycling still costs more than landfilling in most locales. This fact, coupled with the revelation that the so-called “landfill crisis” of the mid-1990s may have been overblown – most of our landfills still have considerable capacity and do not pose health hazards to surrounding communities – means that recycling has not caught on the way some environmentalists were hoping it would.

However, many cities have found ways to recycle economically. They have cut costs by scaling back the frequency of curbside pickups and automating sorting and processing. They’ve also found larger, more lucrative markets for the recyclables, such as in developing countries eager to reuse our cast-off items. Increased efforts by green groups to educate the public about the benefits of recycling have also helped. Today, dozens of U.S. cities are diverting upwards of 30 percent of their solid waste streams to recycling.

While recycling remains an option for most Americans, a few cities, such as Pittsburgh, San Diego, and Seattle, have made recycling mandatory. Seattle passed its mandatory recycling law in 2006 as a way to counter declining recycling rates there. Recyclables are now prohibited from both residential and business garbage. Businesses must sort for recycling all paper, cardboard, and yard waste. Households must recycle all basic recyclables, such as paper, cardboard, aluminum, glass, and plastic. Businesses with garbage containers “contaminated” with more than 10 recyclables are issued warnings and eventually fines if they don’t comply. Household garbage cans with recyclables in them are simply not collected until the recyclables are removed to the recycling bin. Meanwhile, a handful of other cities, including Gainesville, Florida, and Honolulu, Hawaii, require businesses to recycle, but not yet residences.

In perhaps the most famous case of a city putting recycling to the economic test, New York, a national leader on recycling, decided to stop its least cost-effective recycling programs (plastic and glass) in 2002. But rising landfill costs ate up the $39 million savings expected. As a result, the city reinstated plastic and glass recycling and committed to a 20-year contract with the country’s largest private recycling firm, Hugo Neu Corporation, which built a state-of-the art facility along South Brooklyn’s waterfront. There, automation has streamlined the sorting process, and its easy access to rail and barges has cut both the environmental and transportation costs previously incurred by using trucks. The new deal and new facility have made recycling much more efficient for the city and its residents, proving once and for all that responsibly run recycling programs can actually save money, landfill space, and the environment.

Send your environmental questions to EarthTalk, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881, email earthtalk@emagazine.com or go to emagazine.com/earthtalk/thisweek.

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