Susan Robinson, Sr Public Affairs Director at WM and SWEEP Co-Chair

From the earliest days of recycling we’ve seen a healthy conversation among cities, recyclers and product manufacturers over which materials to include in curbside recycling programs. Perspectives vary, and the vastly different types of curbside programs attest to the varied market conditions and priorities in communities across the county.

This is a reminder that waste and recycling is fundamentally a local issue. They are essential public health programs under the responsibility of local city staff who are often tasked with achieving unrealistic weight-based recycling goals while also striving to provide high quality customer service to their constituents. At the same time, product manufacturers bring a different perspective to this issue. They want consumers to know that their products and packaging can be recycled at the curb when they are making purchasing decisions.   Finally, recyclers must be able to process material through their systems to create products that can be sold to end users.

Each has a different lens through which they view recycling.

For many years, we had the luxury of pushing material through the system as global markets gobbled up the material we sorted for recycling.   However, in recent years we’ve been challenged with how to handle new and/or hard to recycle packaging, and end markets have constricted for some materials.

Perhaps it’s worth pausing to think about why we recycle and what makes recycling work. Two recent news stories highlight different examples of how our recycling programs evolve:

  • Recent news stories have highlighted the increase in cardboard in curbside recycling programs as a result of the growth of online ordering. One article suggests that recycling carts and trucks fill faster with the additional cardboard, and recycling facilities must add labor and/or equipment to process the additional fiber. Despite the extra cost, recyclers are not complaining – in fact, they are thrilled with the additional valuable recyclable material. Indeed, MRFs are seeing as much as 25% more cardboard today than 5 years ago, and markets are purchasing that material at attractive prices (a healthy “demand pull”) in a win-win scenario.
  • Foodservice packaging. Motivated by consumer preference for convenience and pressure by product manufactures (“Material push”) to recycle their products, a recent RFP was released that would add foodservice packaging to a large U.S. city’s curbside program.  Based on an evaluation of existing MRF practices (but without including actual end-market conditions in the evaluation of the material), more of this material will be flowing into MRFs for processing. But what are the end markets for this material? Is there demand for used foodservice packaging and what is the market for other recyclables once they are mixed with the foodservice packaging? Are we collecting this material because it will actually be recycled, or are we responding to a customer service desire to feel good about “recycling” even though it is unlikely that the material will ever be recycled into a new product?

These examples beg for serious policy consideration.

  • Which is a better way to grow recycling – the market pull or the service push?
  • Does it matter?

The answer will differ based on who you ask. Some will want to know the cost of the program, others will simply want to address customers’ desires independent of results, others will want proof of recyclability. And this will vary by community values, as well.

A recent study by York University in Ontario, CN highlighted the consequences of adding a wide range of materials to curbside recycling programs. The York University study examined the increase in recycling volume and cost over a dozen years from 2002 through 2014. They found that the amount of material collected in their curbside program increased by 15% as new types of materials were added to programs. Over the same period of time, their cost increased by 63% (after adjusting for inflation).   Further analysis concluded that the cost increase could be attributed to the cost of handling a small amount of “non-core” material that had been added to the program: gable top cartons, aseptic containers, paper laminates, plastic film, plastic laminates, polystyrene and other plastics. Based on the result of this study, the University study team is recommending that at least some of these non-core materials be removed from the curbside program.

“Based on the result of this study, the University study team is recommending that at least some of these non-core materials be removed from the curbside program.”

This study brings us back to fundamental values when it comes to recycling. Recycling is not the end goal; rather it is one tool in the tool box to reduce adverse impact on the environment. Recycling reduces the use of virgin resources that are responsible for the GHG emissions associated with packaging materials. Several studies point to over 80% reduction in GHG emissions by recycling “the basics”: cans, plastic and glass bottles, and paper. Do our recycling programs contemplate these environmental benefits?

One thing seems obvious to me: we make our best choices when we understand the options fully. Recycling embodies important community values, and information is key to expressing those values through programs that work in our communities. Service efficiencies, safety, cost and environmental impacts all play a role in evaluating successful programs. Simple weight based recycling goals are easy to express, but can obscure the robust conversation we ought to be having about implementing effective recycling programs.

Let’s not forget that we recycle to reduce our environmental impacts in a socially and economically responsible way. By using this lens to evaluate our programs, we can evolve our programs to fit our local community needs while also considering broader global impacts.

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