Within the realm of broad sustainability efforts in this country, recycling could be considered one of the veterans. Recycling programs have existed in America since the 1990’s, but despite their longevity, they still have not yet reached their maturity, falling short of refined systems streamlined for maximum impact at minimum cost. In most places, recycling programs are still a net cost for municipalities that host them. Though it is not to say that environmental programs like recycling are not worth costs to accomplish their goals or that any should be expected to “turn a profit”, it’s possible that some programs are operating far below their potential and broadcast a bloated image of expense that is ripe for improvement.
Last month, NextCity’s Sarah Laskow wrote a piece titled “Who Will Pay America’s $1.5 Billion Recycling Bill” that surveyed landscape of recycling efforts remaining a net cost to municipalities–a reality for the vast majority of programs in the United States. The article probes potential answers to the question of who will cover the delta between the cost to collect material and what companies will pay for them if most Americans agree that recycling or upcycling programs (the difference here is important) are a good thing that we should hang on to.
Most of the commentary oscillates between pointing to responsibility of governmental bodies or corporate producers, but is light on the third critical party: consumers. One way to make the system less expensive is to improve it rather than figure out ways to charge a group for its deficiencies. Improvement will come with all involved parties playing a proactive role in adjusting the value of resource streams.
There is a school of thought saying that if corporations are bringing these resource streams into the world then they should be responsible for the tail end of their lives as well. After all, companies know more about their own products than anyone else. Efforts that try to engage organizations in managing product waste are often referred to as Extended Producer Responsibility programs, or EPRs. This topic came up in an Intercon discussion about e-waste and how electronics manufacturers can play a role with ensuring this incredibly complicated waste stream could avoid the destiny of sitting at the bottom of landfills.
One of the criticisms of EPRs is that whether a company is a manufacturer or a retailer, they are decidedly not waste collectors, forcing companies to operate in ways they are not designed for. This has the potential to be bad for the entire system, creating costs that are ultimately associated with paying for a company to perform a service poorly or inefficiently. There are occurrences where companies would rather help fund municipal programs than being forced to shepherd collection efforts that are unrelated to their business model.
Where producers should be on the hook is for the design of their products and how that interfaces with an ecosystem of reclaimed materials. When it comes to how products are made, packaged and shipped, companies are the experts and decisions are made every day on which resource streams to plug into new products. They can decide how much recycled content will go into new components, which directly affects the value of those material flows out of material recovery facilities (MRFs) in local recycling programs. Companies are also in charge of making their products easy to be taken apart and flow into that system at the end of their useful lives–essentially designing for reuse.
It’s certainly possible for governments to throw around taxes on residents and companies in order to rustle up a pool of money to pay for an inefficient system, but perhaps there are better options at our disposal. Governments may be experts at taxation, but they also have the expertise on creating or interfacing with means of waste collection and sorting.
For example, veering to a single-stream collection method for recyclables is a rising trend for U.S. municipalities with promises of increased volumes and collection rates, but these efforts also often bring a reduction in quality of material streams and larger quantities of collected material that are ultimately thrown away. While potentially a boost for participation stats, many organizations and studies argue that single-stream collection is making these resource streams less valuable (thus potentially raising the cost of the system as a whole).
Elected parties are also in the unique position to both legally galvanize local commitment and create repercussions for failing to participate. A 2010 study commissioned by the American Forest & Paper Association found that 63% of Americans have access to a curbside recycling program–a number with plenty of room for improvement. While the number of Americans with access to curbside recycling programs has continued to rise the number of towns, cities and states that have created recycling laws has found much less momentum.
In contrast, the European Union has passed a number of pieces of legislation that mandate the separation and collection of numerous waste materials and is currently set on a target to recycle 50% of household waste by 2020 while Americans are still hovering at a rate of around 34%. The European block has also failed to embrace single stream recycling. If anything, recent mandates are breaking down municipal waste into a larger number of streams with separate collection.
Municipalities should be responsible for coordinating options–good options–for residents to participate as well as creating a system of penalties for failing to abide by mandated goals.
I’m all for making sure that corporate America is playing a meaningful role in finding solutions, but I think it is convenient to let consumers off the hook for the waste streams that result from the stuff that WE buy. We could debate about the supposedly nefarious shadow of propaganda baked into every marketing campaign that leaves consumers hopelessly compelled to purchase products, but the truth is that most companies aren’t going to make things they can’t sell and that leaves an extraordinary amount of power in the hands of the consumer public.
One passage from the NextCity article stuck out for me:
“For most products, though, the economic case for recycling is less clear.
“If you were to go out and buy a box of Cheerios today at Walmart, you’d pay $2.50 a box. You’re buying that box, and you’re eating the Cheerios and getting that value. Hopefully everyone upstream has made a profit…When the box is empty, you’re looking at a material that’s probably worth less than a penny. They have a value stream that supports distribution. But the value stream is different backwards. There’s not an inherent value in that box.”
While I am confident that the numbers could be accurate, they are stated as if part of some system beyond our influence that we ourselves did not create and are not recreating on a daily basis. At some point, if the data that Americans give to surveys is true, then we should be willing to make the investment in the system that helps account for the latter half of product lifestyles.
In the case of Cheerios, would a customer be willing to pay ten cents more if it meant he/she was going to get a 100% post-consumer recycled box and that 100% of the same box would be upcycled again? That ten cents is only an increase of 4% to the cereal, but it has increased the value of the box by 1000%. Maybe it could work with 7 cents, maybe it needs to be 12, but the point is that the value of any item is established by what we are willing to pay for the attributes we demand of it. That box is worth whatever we say it is worth.
Instead of looking at the problem of how to fund a costly system, we should be looking at ways to increase the value of recycled material to help make the entire system less expensive (if not monetarily productive). Making that a reality requires each party at the table to play a role.
Companies can underscore that value by designing reclaimed material streams into their products and designing their products back into those material streams. Governments can echo that value by making laws instead of setting targets, helping to add both commitment and stability to the ecosystem. Consumers can represent that value with our demands for product attributes and the willingness to pay (at least a little more) for those changes in the things we buy. Once “waste” is valuable to everyone, it will no longer be considered waste.