Recycling: Americans aren’t failing - the system is

Recently in the Washington Post an article entitled, American recycling is stalling, and the big blue bin is one reason why, appeared stating that basically America had topped their recycling rates and that recycling was on a decline. The article interviewed an executive from Waste Management stating that local governments were going to have to step in and either pay them money to run recycling operations or take over part of the recycling process.

Many experts in the materials handling industry (what the general public calls recycling) are looking to get diversion rates from the landfills up to 60% and the City of Atlanta has stated they are on target to be “Zero Waste” which is a 90% diversion rate. So, why are recycling handlers saying we have tapped out at 36%? What’s the answer to everything? Money. David Steiner, chief executive of Waste Management stated in the article, “We want to help our customers, but we are a for-profit business. We won’t stay in the industry if we can’t make a profit.” Of course the irony is not too far back in the past, large landfill companies like Waste Management were trying to prevent recycling so they could keep tipping fees and more recently put little recyclers out of business as they moved in because they could see profits.


Real sustainability practitioners are visionaries

Calling for local government bailouts or payments is not visionary. As large corporations embrace sustainability, which needs to happen, we are losing a critical part of the sustainability puzzle…the visionaries. Instead of corporations showing up in the national press moaning and groaning about losing money, they should be hiring sustainability visionaries and collaborating with local governments and communities to increase and perfect recycling rates and make it more profitable.

One of the reasons recycling is becoming less profitable is because single stream recycling means more room for error and purchasers of the recovered materials are becoming choosier as communities recycle more. There is still a lot of confusion out there about what can be recycled and what can’t. It is a challenge that can be solved. We just have to work a bit harder as the issue becomes more complicated.

Government has a role in solving the problem

Solving the problem is going to cost money by the government but not nearly as much as it would cost to pay corporations for their losses. Government has a critical role in the process and although many Americans think government can do nothing right, they actually do some things exceptionally well.

So here’s the top 5 list of things that can happen relatively quickly to get America back on track and reach those 60% recycling goals with the help of government and corporations:

  1. Don’t be dream recyclers – Gloria Hardegree, Executive Director of the Georgia Recycling Coalition presented at the Green Chamber of the South and asked attendees to be conscientious recyclers and not “Dream Recylers”. Americans who do recycle have a tendency to think they should be able to be recycled so let’s pitch it in the recycling bin hoping it will be recycled or making a political statement of this should be recycled. All of us have been guilty. We must stop. Each community has a different recycling program and this is a key area where local governments can help disseminate what they are actually recycling. Yes, it can not be a one time effort, it has to be a prolonged multi-year program but it can be done.
  2. Incentivize recycled content – There have been many companies and industries who have hopped on the band wagon using recycled content. Coca-Cola, the entire carpet industry mostly thanks to Interface, OKAb shoes made out of recycled plastic right here in Georgia, are the first immediate companies to make the list, but there is still plenty of room for much more. For instance did you know Americans use more toilet paper per year than any other country? Do you know they are clear cutting Indonesian virgin rainforest simply so Americans can have toilet paper? Simple solution, local and state and even the federal government offer incentives to companies willing to create products with a certain amount of recycled content. We are incentivizing companies to reduce electric consumption through energy efficiency programs why not incentivize companies who use up our recyclables?
  3. Reward innovation – Instead of saying well we’ve always done it this way, why not have a contest with students, college or grade school, to see who can come up with a campaign to do a better job of education? Also, rewarding good ideas from wherever they come from is a great way to solve the challenge instead of local government paying for the problem. Finding ways to make recycled products less expensive is another issue needed to be solved. What if companies who manufacture items got tax credits for using recycled content?
  4. Educate, educate, educate – You can’t just do one message and think that that’s all it takes. (Yes, this is a bit of a repeat but proves the point that you can’t say it enough.) Communities need constant education on what can and can not be recycled and how to help local governments keep their streams clean and profitable. Recycling can be confusing. What is Number 7 plastic, afterall? So why not create a sticker to put on local municipality’s bins that are large and easy to read to remind people what can by recycled. A simple insert once a year in a utility bill will not do it.
  5. Create ideas not bills for local government – There are plenty of solutions to solve this problem. Corporations need to get to the table with small business and local governments. There have been zillions of meetings in Atlanta about creating higher recycling rates. There has been little real engagement about implementing the ideas. Local governments need to lead not attend these meetings with a set agenda of actionable targets and get it done.

This issue can be solved but finger pointing and complaining about profits is not going to resolve the issue. If current recycling corporations don’t want to do the job then there are plenty of others who are truly committed to the industry, not just profits, that can solve the problem.  Bring on the visionaries.