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Waste Management

How companies, cities and individuals can close the loop

June 22, 2015

Did you recycle that last bottle of water? How about the can of tomato soup? That cardboard packaging? If you did, great! Yet not all Americans have the option to recycle correctly, even if they have the desire to do it.

At GreenBiz Forum 2015 in Phoenix, Arizona, GreenBiz's Joel Makower sat down with three execs who live the world of recycling.

Tom Carpenter, director of sustainability services at Waste Management,  talked about the problems of sorting a modern waste stream. PepsiCo's senior director for sustainability  and recycling, Tim Carey, made the business case for using post-consumer raw materials. Closed Loop Fund Ron Gonen started off though, pointing out that the first step is getting people to recycle in the first place.

"We have some parts of the United States where recycling in phenomenal, as high as anywhere in the world," Gonen said. "You have some other parts of the United States where it's kinda doing OK, and you have some other parts where there is literally no recycling going on."

Gonen said that recycling programs don't need to be reinvented. Instead, he said programs that work well should be replicated in other parts of the U.S. wherever possible.

"We have cities and communities in the United States that have demonstrated excellent recycling programs. What you really need is for parts of the United States where you see low recycling rates to enable them to replicate what the best cities have done," he said. "Now, the complexity there is in order to replicate what the best cities have done, often times you need a certain amount of capital to do that."

"What the cities that have high recycling rates have done is put very robust infrastructure into place, make it very convenient for people to recycle, and [make it] very cost-effective to process those materials because the recycling facilities are local," Gonen said.

Carpenter pointed out that presorting items and making sure the right things go into the bin are big challenges as well.

"The waste stream is changing quite a bit, [so] recycling stream is changing," he said. "We have pockets where contamination is getting so high because people are trying to do the right thing, people are throwing more things into the singles stream bin. But it's contaminating the waste stream a bit more, the recycling stream, and it's just adding additional costs."

The home bin isn't where Carey saw the bigger battle taking place, but all the places people go that are away from home.

"There's this whole infrastructure called 'on-the-go,' while you're driving around in your car, or in the city at a 5K race and you've got a bottle or can in your hand, what the heck do you do with it?" he asked. "Very few of United States citizens will take that think home and put it in their bin."

Carey said that despite the challenges, there is still a good business case to try and improve recycling efforts over the long term.

"Today, using post-consumer recycled content is at parity--if you're lucky--with virgin," he said. "If we can get a little bit more, if we can get the collection process to be more efficient, if we can get the sorting processes at our recycling facilities to get more efficient, then we can get that price down, and we can start to create real demand.