Adding Incentive to Recycling Programs
When municipally sponsored recycling programs first kicked off about 40 years ago they were less user friendly than the ones we know today. Each type of waste material that could be recycled needed to be separated from the others, put in different bins and sometimes even put out for collection on different days. Things got slightly easier for the recycling community with the advent of single stream recycling in the early 2000’s; which allowed all of our recyclables to be placed in a single bin right next to our trash cans. But even with the added convenience of single stream recycling - the percentage of waste that we manage to divert from landfills has yet to top 35% of our total waste production.
Even less encouraging is that these figures from the EPA are based on collection rates, they don’t account for what happens to our recycling material after it’s been collected. As pointed out in this National Geographic article, It’s estimated that only 9% of the plastic ever made has been recycled. And this article in the New York Times claims that 25% of what is collected as single stream recycling goes directly to the landfill because its too contaminated to use. It’s no secret that our recycling doesn’t always get recycled the way we think it does. But why? Why has it been so hard for this country to build an efficient system of recycling? To answer that question we must first look to China.
China’s rapid modernization created an insatiable appetite for raw material; to satisfy this appetite the Chinese government imported recycled content from all over the world. This provided an outlet for nearly half of the United State’s recycling, no matter how contaminated or poorly sorted the batches were. But that all changed in 2017 when China instituted the National Sword Policy; which banned the import of plastic waste and set restrictions on contamination of recycled content that was far beyond our ability to achieve. Since this happened, our domestic recycling industry has been in a tailspin as it tries to figure out what to do with a staggering amount of "recycled" content that nobody wants. It’s easy to say now that we should have known China wasn’t going to take our waste forever, and even easier to see how this lack of foresight enabled our reluctance to build domestic recycling infrastructure. China cutting us off might have been the straw that broke the camel’s back, but our problems started long before then.
If we had a recycling system that placed value on the material it collects, instead of chasing the quick buck by sending it all overseas, we would have never been in this situation in the first place. I’m not saying this is an easy thing to do, there are a number of challenges to overcome in creating a profitable recycling industry such as…
A good deal of the stuff we use just isn’t made in a way that makes it easy to recycle. Things like wax coatings on paperboard boxes, plastic liners inside beverage containers and adhesive labels on packaging make some materials impossible to effectively recycle at all, never mind in a way that can create a profit.
Recycled content is too contaminated. Grease on pizza boxes, peanut butter at the bottom of the jar and unused detergent are just a few examples of the kind of contamination that lower the quality, and therefore the value of post consumer material batches.
Sometimes it’s just not worth it to sort it all out. When material that’s already difficult to recycle is collected and compacted with material that’s not even recyclable to begin with, there’s a massively expensive effort that must be undertaken to sort it all out before you can even begin to think about recycling it.
That’s not to say there isn’t an opportunity. Despite the contamination, there is plenty of value to be found in the things we recycle; especially with materials like aluminum (beer & soda cans), high density polyethylene (milk jugs & soap bottles), tin (tuna & soup cans) and corrugated cardboard (shipping boxes). Before China closed its doors to recycled material…
Corrugated Cardboard was selling for as much as $295/ton in overseas ports
Aluminum was selling for as high as a $1/pound
Tin was selling for up to $9/pound
Baled HDPE plastic was selling around $.40/pound
Baled PET plastic was selling around $.15/pound
These numbers might not sound like much but keep in mind that in 2017 the US generated 268 million tons of waste, a lot of which were these very materials. The going rates for these kind of post consumer materials have taken a beating over the last few years, but they can get back to reasonable levels if a domestic infrastructure is created and contamination can be controlled. I believe the failure of the recycling industry is their inability to accurately sort the variety of materials they collect in a cost effective manner; and the inadequate control of contamination that enters their systems. When batches of recycled content are clean, sorted and homogeneous - they are not only far more likely to be fully recycled, they’re way more valuable to the people that possess them. But our recycling system doesn’t yield this kind of product because it’s essentially the same system we use to manage trash. It’s focused on volume and brawn when it should be focused on value and finesse.
The way I see it, the key to pre-sorted, uncontaminated post-consumer content isn’t building warehouses to sort out recycling that was collected in trash trucks, it’s having the consumer do it for you. Today’s recycling companies are quick to blame the consumer for not cleaning out their empty jar of peanut butter before they recycle it; but is that a fair distribution of blame? If the company that collects it is going to mash it all together in a compactor, how can they expect people to go out of their way to clean their trash; especially when there is no incentive for them to do so. While there are a number of good Samaritans that will go the extra mile just because they believe in the need to recycle - the truth is for the vast majority of us - virtue only goes as far as our schedules let it. If we want to improve the quality of our recycled content we have to engage consumers, not regulate them. That is accomplished not through hopes and prayers that people will do the right thing, but by offering them some kind of value.
What if that value could be provided to recyclers as "points" in exchange for their pre-sorted and decontaminated recycled content. The value of (or points for) each collection would be small but would accumulate over time and could be exchanged for discounts on the items that participants typically buy. To earn the points, recyclables would need to be cleaned and sorted within clearly defined parameters; which increases the chances that the content is fully recycled and it’s value at the same time. Additionally, the constant exposure to participants and the data available from the content collected could be leveraged into building long term relationships between participants and consumer product companies - opening all kinds of opportunities to generate revenue. The easiest way to think of it is like credit card reward points work - the more you spend the more you earn; but here, you earn points based on the volume of clean and sorted content you turn over. Focus on collecting the most valuable recyclables like tin & aluminum cans, PET & HDPE plastic, and corrugated cardboard from high density communities like apartment buildings and condo developments. Waste management companies have failed to make recycling work because there is zero incentive for anyone to behave any differently than they were before recycling programs existed. But offering some kind of value to people in exchange for conscientious recycling could change that.
For proof that the concept could work you have to look no further than states that have legislated “bottle bills.” If you’re not from one of the 10 states that utilize bottle deposit programs, they work like this… Every time you purchase something that comes in a bottle which is covered under the states particular legislation, you pay a small deposit of 5 - 15 cents when you check out. The deposit is put into a state fund, and then returned to you when you bring that bottle (or any bottle covered by the program) to a registered redemption center. Bottle bill states recover material at the following rates: Aluminum 84%, Glass 65% and PET Plastic 48%; while non-bottle bill states record: Aluminum 39%, Glass 25% and PET Plastic 20%. (www.bottlebill.org) Adding an incentive less valuable than the cost of a gumball has an undeniable impact on the rate at which we collect recyclable content. Unfortunately, there is fierce resistance to bottle bills from beverage companies that think of it as a tax, so their legislation is fought at every turn by powerful corporate lobbyists. But their success is irrefutable where they do exist, and goes a long way to prove that the smallest amount of value can have a monumental impact on recycling behavior.
As with any opportunity there are head winds. The capital requirements to do something like this on a large scale are significant; and there are stringent licensing and permitting requirements for any kind of business collecting and transporting waste. And of course there's competition. Waste management companies need volume to cover the huge capital cost of all the equipment they use so they are fiercely territorial. When they sign contracts with businesses, apartment buildings, municipalities or anyone else; they ensure that they have exclusive rights to collect all of the trash and recycling that the town or organization creates. But that's not to say there isn't an opportunity to create a successful business that improves our capacity to recycle. To the right person with the right connections, the potential is limitless.