A Community-Centric Approach to U.S. Recycling Issues

March 22, 2019

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For recyclers in today’s markets, it’s not easy being green. The value of recyclables is down and the loads entering material recovery facilities (MRFs) are contaminated with non-recyclables. It’s a potent combination that has roiled recycling markets, as covered in this front page New York Times article

How bad is it? The average value of recyclables fell 40% in 2018, recycling haulers reported losing millions last year in their recycling business, and some communities have stopped or drastically reduced their recycling programs because the costs are too high.

The good news is that the fundamentals of picking up recyclable materials and converting them into manufacturing feedstock is sound. The issues impacting recycling—contaminated loads and lack of demand for materials—are solvable. Many organizations are working to help solve these issues including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation via its Beyond 34: Recycling and Recovery for a New Economy initiative (Beyond 34). While the solutions may take time, the vision of circular systems all around the country where materials are used, picked up, converted into usable feedstock, and made into new products is worth the wait and investment.

This tumult is expected given the sharp decrease in demand from the largest customer of recycling exports. The United States used to send 40% of its recycled goods and 70% of its plastic to China. Then in 2018, China implemented its National Sword policy that was in essence a ban on foreign recyclables in four categories and 24 types of imports. The result was a sharp decline in exports to China. For example, China took less than 5% of U.S. plastic in 2018.

Many commentators are seeing a silver lining in China’s ban. We now have to reckon with our recycled material and not simply ship it across the ocean for others to address. Collecting, sorting, and processing materials domestically would mean new infrastructure investments and new jobs. Recycling is already a source of many jobs as a recent U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report found that in a single year, recycling and reuse activities in the United States accounted for 757,000 jobs. In the more immediate term, other countries such as Malaysia and Thailand have started importing more material, but there is still a glut of material sending markets downward.

The Solution

The solution to solving this recycling crisis isn’t necessarily the same across the country. The tactics communities should employ differ based on the local recycling reality, which varies in the collection of certain materials; proximity of a high-tech MRF; contamination rates; the structure of hauling contracts; policies that require recycling in homes and businesses; and many other ways. 

The Chamber Foundation's Beyond 34 is unique in that it focuses on engaging communities to bring all local stakeholders across the recycling value chain together and to develop a data-driven plan that is responsive to its particular situation.

The Beyond 34 model has three phases: engage and convene stakeholders from a community’s recycling supply chain; provide the community with a detailed analysis of its waste management system and projects that will most effectively increase and improve recycling; and implement the identified projects with seed funding from Beyond 34 and other funds. The Chamber Foundation applied this model in our Orlando, Florida region pilot and funded more than $100,000 worth of projects to increase and improve recycling, thanks to the generous support of a circular economy coalition of companies and foundations.

The Chamber Foundation is building off of that success with an expansion of the initiative. It will apply a refined version of the Beyond 34 model based on lessons learned from the Orlando pilot in a new city to increase and improve recycling in the region. Also, importantly, the expansion plan includes developing online tools and resources so that any community can learn about the model and apply a version of it in their community that best addresses their needs.

The Beyond 34 initiative’s website will become a one-stop-shop for communities to receive the information needed to continue recycling and improve their local systems. It will provide details of how organizations are working to fix current recycling issues, why businesses want more recycled materials, which communities are taking innovative approaches to ensure a successful recycling system, and what new technology is available to better collect, sort, and process recyclables. 

There are many organizations and solutions that Beyond 34 has engaged and will continue to engage to address issues with recyclingfor example, Closed Loop Fund, which provides multi-million dollar loans at favorable terms to several parts of the recycling supply chain, such as manufacturers to spur new end markets; The Recycling Partnership, which focuses on reducing contamination in major cities like Atlanta with actions such as refusing to collect carts that are too contaminated; and Recycle Across America, which strives to reduce contamination with the introduction of a standardized label that would create clear, standardized communication about how to recycle correctly.

In addition, a slew of companies have contributed financially to recycling initiatives and have set commitments to use more recycled materials in their products. Some examples are Dow Energy aiming to supply 100,000 metric tons of recycled plastics in its products to customers in Europe by 2025, and Walmart targeting at least 20% post-consumer recycled content in its private brand packaging by 2025.

The on-the-ground efforts and online resources that are part of the Chamber Foundation's Beyond 34 initiative incorporate solutions like these, and will help communities position themselves for sustainable and circular recycling systems. It is only with such local coordination and planning, as well as the broader efforts to increase demand and clean-up the recycling stream, that the existing recycling issues will be fixed.