During the last three decades, the solid waste industry, through regulations and customer expectations, has expanded and evolved into a seamless service, providing environmental solutions for almost every societal need. Despite these advances, residential recycling programs still lag behind, and their management resembles the past rather than focusing on the future. I hope to spark discussion and further consideration on the effectiveness of these programs by revisiting how they were initiated, their current status, and how private business initiatives might reshape the conventions of recycling programs. Ultimately, the future of residential recycling programs depends on achieving greater net positive returns for economic value and the environment alike.
In the late 1980s and ’90s, many residential recycling programs were started to meet pre-described recycling mandates. These programs were heavily subsidized, with little emphasis placed on cost or effectiveness. This led to what I often refer to as a “shotgun approach”—hoping to hit a broad range through quantitative methods, regardless of quality or intrinsic value. This approach persists, even though it is no longer a viable strategy.
Dependency on foreign markets as one of the main outlets for materials collected in many US regions created complacency in the system and a sense of success. But overseas market volatility, coupled with quality issues, exposed once again the weaknesses of transferring ownership to external markets without outlining specific performance measures and requirements—such as, what would be the final fate of these materials? Exporting inferior materials to Asia and Latin America (or even transporting across the US) further devalues their utility and defeats the environmental benefits these very programs are seeking to achieve, namely, to supply alternative raw materials for new products to reduce the demand for virgin materials and associated resources.
In recent years, new mandates at the national and state levels to increase recycling rates have pressured many municipalities to expand recycling programs and introduce such bundled recycling schemes as single-stream, as well as incentive programs and penalties to elevate recycling rates, even if these schemes will probably never deliver the expected results or pay for themselves.
These mandates have been typically silent or vague on quality measures and how waste generation can be avoided or reduced. The emphasis has been incorrectly placed on front-end activities, concentrating mostly on the efforts of quantitative and counting activities rather than effectiveness and qualitative requirements essential to the manufacturing process. Without a balanced approach among three key components—supply, quality, and demand—all the resources invested, along with planning, collection, and sorting of materials, are wasted.
Although not directly associated with our industry, large conglomerates are integrating in-house recycling systems into their business plans to differentiate themselves from their competition. This trend has been growing as businesses are becoming more environmentally savvy. The purpose of these programs is to reduce waste generation while providing viable and timely feedstock to manufacturers, without government intervention or mandates. Typically, these systems comprise simple sorting lines that separate recyclable materials for the wastestream at the source. These businesses are receiving top dollar for their commodities, even during economic downturns, because of quality and agility built into the system to respond to market needs. In many cases, these commodities are shipped directly to manufacturers, thus keeping costs down and better control on post-processing activities. In addition, these businesses are becoming more and more relevant in the “green” economy with the potential to reshape public policies and recycling practices.
Even though public managers cannot simply duplicate the flexibility and scope of private enterprise, they are in a position to assert a leadership role and steer public policy to raise the quality and level of recycling activities locally and, consequently, throughout the United Sates. Mapping the desired objectives (purposes of recycling programs) to impel strategic results from tactical initiatives and engaging public officials in the narrative could lead to more effective, value-adding policies. Incorporating these objectives into a the procurement process for recycling services—collection and/or processing—would result in recycling programs conducive to achieving greater net positive returns for both economic value and the environment.
The bottom line is that recycling is not a free activity, and its cost cannot be simplified into accounting terms only or masked under spiffy slogans. It is also clear that effective solutions to the growing waste disposal challenges will not come from a single approach (recycling) or technology. To successfully contend with other demanding needs and to thrive, however, government-administered recycling progress must integrate quality at every aspect of the supply/product chain (generators, processors, and manufacturers) in order to measure its effectiveness and environmental impacts. I believe a relentless commitment to effectively bring in viable discarded materials in a timely manner from curbside to commerce will characterize the winner of this decade and beyond.
As in the story of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, let us not ask which way we ought to walk from here. Let us ask, instead, “What is the ultimate goal when implementing/supporting recycling programs?” That way, we will know the right path to follow.