Companies across the globe are increasingly responding to the call for action in the sustainability arena. Many are making strides in reducing the environmental footprint of their own operations; however, minimizing the impact of products and product packaging on the environment at the post-consumer stage remains an ongoing challenge. A primary reason for this is that consumer behavior and the management of post-consumer waste are not under direct company control.
Consequently, an increasing number of companies are seeking opportunities to strengthen municipal recycling programs and making sure they include their packaging among the list of accepted materials. A primary focus of such efforts is to promote single stream recycling via distribution of curbside recycling carts. While this is an important step, focusing on single stream curbside recycling infrastructure development alone, will have limited effectiveness.
Communities that have achieved high recycling rates share a common set of recycling program attributes:
- Universal recycling access – Rather than just curbside recycling service for single family homes, top performing recycling communities provide opportunities to recycle everywhere. This includes apartments and condos, commercial establishments, schools and other institutional and public spaces. In such communities, recycling is as convenient as waste disposal, regardless of the location.
- Clear and consistent recycling messages – Top performing recycling programs invest in public awareness and education, making sure that consumers understand what is and is not recyclable and why recycling is important.
- Recycling incentives – Top performing programs have variable rate waste collection fee structures that charge waste generators in accordance with what they discard and reward recycling behavior through lower waste collection bills. Such systems also generate needed revenue to fund the recovery infrastructure. Historically called Pay as You Throw programs, the new trend is to say “Save as You Recycle.”
- Collection of a full range of materials – Top performing programs collect the full range of materials that have sound recycling markets with drop off locations provided for materials that are not suited for single stream collection. Increasingly, leading communities are collecting organics as a separate materials stream. Waste generators are thus provided with three collection containers: for recyclables, organics, and remaining refuse. Once organics are separately collected, some communities such as Toronto in Canada reduce refuse collection to once every two weeks.
- Supporting policies – Top performing programs don’t just stop with infrastructure development; they want to maximize materials throughput via high participation. Once recycling service is universally available and convenient, making recycling mandatory and making it illegal to put recyclables in the waste stream is a logical next step.
There are many examples of municipalities – both large and small – that have established such comprehensive recycling programs in the United States. For specific examples are Austin, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Seattle.
As a professional working in the recycling arena watching programs evolve for over 30 years, it is clear to me that it is only through this type of multi-faceted approach that we will ever see the high materials recovery rates we are seeking. By establishing a shared vision for optimizing recycling systems and working collectively to achieve this, the vision can one day become a reality.