There is a crisis in recycling. It affects not just the recycling industry, but local governments, policymakers, manufacturers, and citizens – all of whom have a role to play in addressing these challenges, and sustaining the environmental, social, and economic benefits of recycling.
The media has done its best to report this story, but have created a common misconception about the source of the crisis. The underlying recycling problem here and around the world is not that recycling has suddenly become sloppily contaminated – it hasn’t. The fault is not our wildly popular and efficient single stream recycling programs. In fact, single-stream technology has helped dramatically increase recycling participation and material capture since the 1990s and remains the best technology today for widespread recycling.
The problem is that recyclable items – due to recent, dramatic changes in Chinese trade policy – have lost their value as commodities. Markets for glass have evaporated. Markets for various types of paper have closed or shrunk. In the past – over many years – these materials generally had positive value and were used to subsidize recycling services and programs.
Markets for our recyclable commodities will recover -- no one knows for sure when. Recycling commodity experts believe it will take at least two to four years. In the meantime, the right question to ask, “is how do we all work to make recycling economically sustainable?”
Our industry believes in sustainability, and in working towards the sustainability, conservation, and renewal of our resources. We have deliberately made this ethic visible in our investments and business priorities.
However, this is a crisis moment – for recycling, and for sustainability. Rescuing recycling from this crisis will require the participation and commitment of a number of stakeholders:
Citizens and Businesses: Take a hard look at your recycling habits and practices. We need consumers to work to reduce contamination at the source and put cleaner material at the curb. Intentionally and deliberately reduce material, such as catalogs and other unwanted junk mail, food scraps, and plastic grocery bags.
Companies That Recycle: We must continue to invest in new technology to deliver better, higher-quality sorting capability. Also, recyclers must aggressively work to identify and develop new markets and uses for recyclable materials.
Regulators, Lawmakers, and Municipal Policy Makers: Be creative about alternative or innovative use of material. We should require the beneficial use of glass, including as an aggregate in road construction and repair. Remove glass from lists of materials banned from disposal. As markets outside of China for mixed paper become over-saturated, it may become necessary to discuss removing junk mail and mixed paper from the required recycling stream and collect newsprint only. Also, we should be prepared to expand permitted landfill disposal capacity as needed.
Manufacturers: Manufacturers need to focus not only on the recyclability of their products but also on committing to innovation in packaging design. As an example, all too often packaging is either excessive, or consists of undeconstructable plastic glued to cardboard that represents a contaminant in either stream. Also, manufacturers must more intentionally specify and use recycled commodities in order for there to be viable markets for our recyclables. Without this critical step, recycling is neither economically or environmentally sustainable.
The recycling industry has always felt that it is our explicit responsibility to use our expertise and experience to build an approach to recycling that makes it economically sustainable as well as environmentally sustainable. It is also our goal to help policymakers and customers understand the necessity of making recycling an economically sustainable activity in order to enjoy the environmental and social benefits of recycling.
And while the global economic and market underpinnings of recycling are weakening severely, it will require creativity, courage, and collaboration to transition to a new and workable policy and economic model. This means serious and extended conversations and collaboration between all stakeholders – policymakers, municipalities, customers, recyclers – need to occur to understand and restructure the economics of recycling in order to preserve the benefits of recycling as an important part of a long-term resource sustainability strategy.