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Why the business world should be far more involved with community recycling

The economics of local programs are challenging, but their existence is critical for the development of a circular economy.

The materials collection and processing supply chain necessary to support a shift to the circular economy is only as strong as its weakest link. That means businesses planning for that transition must forge stronger links with the municipal and community resources that support the recycling industry.

Nonprofit organizations such as the Recycling Partnership have stepped up to fill that gap, by facilitating dialogues and helping connect businesses with community resources for collecting, sorting and processing all manner of materials that could find a second life in new products. It’s what Recycling Partnership CEO Keefe Harrison calls a "curbside value partnership."

The history of community recycling in the United States actually begins centuries ago. The famous Rittenhouse Mill in Philadelphia opened in 1690, taking in linen and cotton rags to be used for printing bibles and newspapers. The movement grew during World War II in response to wartime shortages. Curbside collection began in the 1960s, gaining steam in the 1970s alongside the burgeoning environmental movement. In 1987, a "Garbage Barge" spent months on the ocean, searching for a location to dispose of its cargo. Not long after, China began importing trash from the United States, which it then would sort and resell. By 2004, Americans were exporting $3.1 billion in scrap to the Chinese, representing the country’s largest export to its Eastern trading partner.

Things were progressing fairly well until the global recession of 2008, which caused a major setback. Dylan de Thomas, vice president of industry collaboration for the Recycling Partnership, said that with the slowdown in the economy, demand for materials fell and prices for commodities such as cardboard, scrap metals, plastics and glass collapsed. Shipments were abandoned, and budgets for many community recycling programs were reduced or eliminated.

When you have 20,000 communities trying to run their own effective programs [in the face of this global turmoil], that's a fragile model.
The Recycling Partnership emerged in 2014 to get community and business leaders talking to one another more actively. Much of the organization’s funding comes from more than 40 corporate partners — including Amazon, Coca-Cola, ExxonMobil, Heineken, DanoneWave, Dow and Target — that have an interest in seeing communities grow and improve their programs.

To date, the partnership has invested more than $29 million in recycling infrastructure. It received a substantial infusion in late July when PepsiCo committed $10 million to an initiative called "All In On Recycling." The explicit goal of the effort is "to reverse the decline in U.S. residential recycling rates over the next five years." The hope is "to capture as many as 7 billion additional containers over that period, along with other recyclable materials from households across the United States."

The grant is set up as a matching funds arrangement with the aim of encouraging an additional $75 million in investment (including $25 million from other businesses) for the effort. Communities that will feel the effort first include Miami, El Paso, Texas, and cities in Michigan and Ohio.

"Communities in Central Ohio still need funding for curbside recycling carts in order to provide the best possible access to recycling for our residents," said Ty Marsh, executive director for the Solid Waste Authority of Central Ohio, in the press release for the effort. "We hope other major corporations join this challenge to reach $25 million in total funding so that thousands of cities and towns across the country can make improvements to their recycling systems."

Circling the problem

Initially, the Recycling Partnership’s focus was on three things: improving access to recycling; increasing recycling rates; and reducing contamination, which, given the presence of plastic bags and other such items, easily can jam up recycling machinery and bring the process to a halt.

Armed with information, dedication and good will, the group went to work in three major cities: Atlanta, Chicago and Denver. There, thanks to the use of data collection and customer feedback, it was able to improve recycling rates by as much as 27 percent while reducing contamination rates by as much as 57 percent.

The Recycling Partnership has helped communities and companies keep tabs on progress through its "Feet on the Street" initiative, dispatching workers to check recycling bins for signs of contamination and encouraging them to leave notes for companies or individuals who weren’t complying with sorting rules. Its data collection efforts since have evolved.

Rubicon Global now offers a software app that the Recycling Partnership helped develop, which automates data collection and analysis. (Rubicon’s website also suggests it can provide "virtual waste assessment of dumpster trash," presumably allowing companies to derive higher value for waste materials.) Other technologies that could help improve sorting processes and decrease contamination are emerging. For example, AMP Robotics is developing robots that could take over the messy (and dangerous) task of picking out recyclable items from a moving conveyor in a materials recovery facility (MRF).

The recent changes to China’s waste-import policies have complicated matters. The country’s new rules insist on contamination rates no greater than 0.5 percent, a number that many facilities are finding difficult to achieve. In order to respond to this, MRFs will need to either find other outlets for the material or improve the purity of the shipments. The net result; higher costs to recycle, making it that much more difficult for all players to operate at a profit while still finding buyers.

Learn more about collaborations instrumental for creating a circular economy at VERGE 18.

If that wasn't bad enough, China recently announced tariffs of 25 percent on old corrugated cardboard (OCC), other fiber materials and scrap plastic as part of the escalating trade war with the United States. The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) estimates the tariffs will affect 676,000 metrics tons of material, worth about $278 million during 2018 alone. An additional 85,000 metrics, worth more than $117 million, will be affected in 2019.

"When you have 20,000 communities trying to run their own effective programs [in the face of this global turmoil], that's a fragile model," Harrison said.

While China’s new policy will lead to an expansion of the domestic market for recyclables, which is a good thing, communities may have less visibility into where they are sending their scrap materials. If new outlets can’t be found quickly enough, the material could end up being landfilled. Communities are being asked to navigate potentially increased cost, uncertainty and a changing landscape that clearly shows "what big global markets can mean for small-town America," Harrison said.

Cities such as Denver and Minneapolis, as well as the state of Massachusetts, are responding well to the challenge by coordinating with local businesses to decrease materials contamination, improve recycling rates and sell commodities extracted at MRFs for fair prices.

It’s important to replicate those and other innovations elsewhere, as more companies reconsider their models of design, material choices and production. "This is a critical time to make sure that recycling continues as a core piece of the circular economy," Harrison said.

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