As most of us have recently been hearing across the media spectrum, recycling today is in trouble. Recyclers can’t secure the margins that make recycling profitable, recovery rates are stagnant, and waste management companies are looking at the future of the U.S.’s recycling infrastructure with a skeptical eye. What can we do, as social entrepreneurs and conscious consumers, to get back on track?
This question played a key role in the development of the Recycle Right campaign, a social action campaign TerraCycle and our nonprofit partner Recycle Across America have been promoting around TerraCycle’s new show, Human Resources. While the show itself is a valuable way to share our company's mission goals with viewers, it is also a great platform for us to address the many concerns we have about the current state and viability of recycling in the country.
While the current problems with recycling in the U.S. are many, a primary concern is the rampant contamination taking place across our recycling infrastructure. Contamination is a particularly nasty problem for material recovery facilities (MRFs), as they must sort through non-recyclable materials and garbage to maintain the quality and market value of recyclable commodities. Sorting out all of that non-recyclable material means increased processing costs, which reduces the margins recyclers receive when bringing recyclable material back to market. This isn't profitable, and waste management companies are already reporting noteworthy revenue losses from their recycling ventures. If contamination isn't curbed soon, linear disposal options like landfilling and incineration will keep looking more and more attractive. In many regions, they already do.
Contamination can occur in a variety of ways, but a significant cause is the current complacency many of us have about the recycling process. Since single-stream recycling has become popular, many of us have grown complacent with the convenience the system provides. While it isn't necessarily the public’s fault, the simplicity of this popular system reduces the need for us to think about what we are placing in our single-stream dumpsters and curbside bins. Shrink-wrapped plastic bottles or cardboard, for instance, are often removed from the recycling stream as the plastic film can get tangled in sorting equipment. Even so, most dumpsters and recycling bins provide no warnings to consumers about what can and cannot be included, resulting in a highly contaminated recycling stream.
So what is our Recycle Right campaign trying to do about this? Our first tactic is to promote standardized recycling bin labels which, if adopted on a large scale, could help reduce a significant amount of confusion for the public. Recycling bins and their labels are different wherever we go, and some labels are far less informative than others. A bin labeled “Paper” doesn’t tell consumers that wax-coated paper products are often not recyclable, or that glossy and photo paper may not be recycled in that municipality. By including standardized, universal recycling bin labels with consistent imagery and messaging, passersby learn right at the bin what should and should not be included. The result: fewer contaminants, and more valuable material.
We also want to promote standardized labeling on products themselves, so consumers know right away if their product and its associated packaging can be throw into the recycling bin. Greenblue’s How2Recycle Label, for example, has become increasingly popular with a variety of major retailers and product manufacturers like Target and ConAgra Foods. We want to push more manufacturers into adopting similar labeling systems, which could significantly reduce the amount of non-recyclable waste that ends up in recycling bins.
Finally, simply getting the word out about the need for and importance of recycling is a critical component of Recycle Right. While TreeHugger readers and other conscious consumers get the big picture, the same can’t be said for the countless other individuals who consistently throw non-recyclable materials and other contaminants into their blue bins. Not only do we need to teach people how to recycle properly, but we also need to explain why it is critically important to long-term sustainable development. Recycling must be a part of mainstream conversations if we hope to improve the state of our current infrastructure.
The Recycle Right campaign may not be the ultimate solution for getting us out of this hole, but we think it can help bring many more people into the conversation and motivate them into thinking more consciously about their recycling habits. This solution has long-term implications after all. By raising awareness and pushing for the adoption of a universal system to help decrease confusion and contamination, we may finally help to make recycling lucrative once again.