Where Did Recycling Go?

Many consumers think about recycling as something they regularly do or something they don’t care about at all. They may think recycling was perfected in the ’70s or even that it’s a big myth—everything really goes to the dump.

Well, turns out, recycling is a wildly important part of how American companies plan to be sustainable over the long-term. Commodities, like plastic, glass, aluminum and paper, are becoming more and more limited as global economies emerge and more consumers come online. In the U.S. today, about $11 billion per year of recyclable packaging goes to landfills or incinerators. This is all value that could be captured and kept in use while also creating jobs and reducing environmental impacts.

However, recycling is a very inefficient system in most states. It has been set up one ZIP code at a time by local governments. This often happens without consideration for what the next town over is doing, and almost nobody knows what it costs or really should cost.

In about 46 countries around the world, governments have asked companies to participate in paying for recycling instead of leaving it on the backs of taxpayers or leaving homeowners to pay what a private hauler tells them it should cost. This approach, called producer responsibility or extended producer responsibility (EPR), is being considered in the U.S. This type of system already exists for electronics, paint and mattresses but so far does not exist for packaging. The idea is companies would pay and also be allowed to organize the system to be more efficient. So the companies that haul recyclables would work for the companies who make the recyclables instead of having government and homeowners as their customers.

I work closely with a group called Recycling Reinvented, which is working to get states to adopt a form of EPR that would drive a refinement of how recycling is delivered and improve collection of recyclables. Think bottles, cans, boxes, plastic clamshells, paper-board and the stuff you would typically toss in a recycling bin. While many Americans have good access to recycling, many do not. This new approach, would increase the number of bins, put more bins in public spaces, and provide funding to educate and encourage consumers to get packages back into productive use through recycling.

While some companies have been slow to warm up to the idea that they would help pay for this, others, who use recycled material (like Nestle Waters North America and New Belgium Brewing), are in favor of the idea. Less waste means more recycled content available. That means less reliance on raw natural resources, lower emissions and, interestingly, more jobs. Recycling Reinvented is researching how all of this works. A study, due out in the first quarter of this year, will tell us what the costs are, how much can be collected and whether a new approach could mean that we all actually pay less for recycling than we pay for it today while getting better results. [This blog will link to the study when it’s available.]

Here is the trend to watch: If a better way exists to recycle packaging and save consumers and taxpayers mone, perhaps state legislators will follow what governments have done in 46 other countries already. Laws could pass that say companies need to take the responsibility to increase recycling while having a say in how recycling is done. Government would set the bar and let companies drive the necessary changes to get higher rates. You might be able to ultimately recycle the same things as your neighbors the next town over, and companies can use more recycled content in their packaging.

Much remains to be understood about the way forward, but there is no question the debate is changing because society has not done everything possible to reduce waste. We need input from lots of companies, legislators, advocates and consumers to get this right.

About the Author

Dr. Michael P. Washburn
Dr. Michael P. Washburn is principal of Washburn Consulting, a firm that supports progressive companies and conservation non-profits in protecting America’s natural resources. He is former vice president of sustainability at Nestle Waters North America and a former vice president of the Forest Stewardship Council.

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