Truly Sustainable Recycling

In the wake of declining commodity values, there have been a lot of rumors flying around about recycling: Is recycling broken? Are recyclers just throwing recycling in the trash? Should we ditch single stream and go back to source separating? Here's how we've achieved truly sustainable recycling through it all…


  • Truly Sustainable Recycling

Since its inception in the 1970s, large-scale, modern recycling has experienced a myriad of changes as the industry evolved to meet the needs of modern society. Now, a little more than 40 years after John and Doug Casella built the first recycling center in their home state of Vermont, Casella Waste Systems continues to be a leader in the northeast in recycling innovation.

Today, Casella’s Resource Solutions group, comprised of our Recycling, Organics, and Customer Solutions units operate 19 processing facilities throughout the northeast including single-stream, commercial, and source-separated recycling operations, as well as two facilities dedicated to processing organic materials into compost. Meanwhile, our Customer Solutions team manages over 10,000 customer locations in more than 40 states delivering a wide range of environmental services and zero-waste solutions. Together, the Resource Solutions group processes more than one million tons of material and redirects it from landfills each year.

While many published reports indicate that recycling is at best in trouble, and at worst doomed, the reality is that modern recycling is simply moving through yet another period of change that requires a shared commitment to innovation, strategic planning, and allocation of resources that will serve modern society’s best interests.

The well-documented disruption to the recycling industry caused by China’s “National Sword” policy caused industry leaders to examine best practices and explore new markets for material while seeing a significant decrease in overall commodity price.

At Casella, the disruption was absorbed better and more efficiently than its competitors thanks to a commitment to both economic and environmental sustainability. This unique approach was well documented thanks to a recent Waste Dive article as well as a feature story on EARTH by John Holden, which aired on Fox Business in November.

These media stories showcase the key pillars to our sustainable recycling model, and how sharing the overall risk has allowed Casella to generate positive returns in the recycling business despite historically large declines in recycled fiber pricing over the last two years. By spreading the risk throughout the entire value chain and allowing that risk to move up or down with the market through a customer fee structure, Casella was able to invest $9 million in new recycling infrastructure in 2019 while others in the industry have remained stagnant or scaled back their programs.

New infrastructure including retrofits to existing facilities, optical sorting equipment, and polishing and sorting screens have helped Casella achieve the industry quality specification of less than two percent non-recyclable material within our finished product, while the incoming rate hovers around 20 percent.

Many skeptics have pointed to the industry’s shift to single-stream collection as a cause of the current issues that recycling faces. This is simply not accurate. Single-stream recycling programs have increased residential recycling rates exponentially and have created efficiencies in collection and processing that dramatically reduce our overall carbon footprint throughout the process. It is now vitally important that industry leaders, including Casella, renew our focus on teaching all stakeholders how to Recycle Better™.

Our commitment to the public is simple: 100% of non-contaminated recyclables that we receive and process are sold to end markets to be made into new products or put to beneficial use. And while some processers continue to ship plastics overseas, our commitment to domestic markets for residential plastic has been well documented and as new domestic fiber markets come online over the next 18-24 months it is imperative that as a society we do not take a step backward and abandon recycling programs that are proven effective.

If we are to achieve truly sustainable recycling and move toward a “zero-waste” society, we must continue to reinvest and innovate toward that end. We must all take ownership for the impacts of the closed-loop modern society in which we live. Producers, consumers, and processers can all collectively make a difference when we work together on finding solutions to complex problems.