Special Report: Recycling
How Much Can We Recycle?

How Much Can We Recycle?

Changes in the waste stream have a major impact on our ability to meet recycling goals.

The Olympics recently finished in Rio. It was a showcase of some of the top feats in athletics. And achieving those feats takes a lot of preparation.

When athletes are training, their coaches set goals to measure their progress. These goals challenge the athletes and spur them on to see how much they can achieve. Setting those goals is important. They need to be based on the athlete’s ability and the performance that is needed to win a gold medal.

Athletes with the right mix of skills and training discipline are more likely to succeed if their goals are well defined and achievable. Goals that set too low of a bar will not lead to a gold medal performance, and goals that are set unrealistically high lead to failure or cheating.

Recycling is no different. Goals give recycling programs targets to attain, and they measure progress and define high-performing programs. Athletes have a major advantage over recycling programs when it comes to goals because theirs are set by experienced coaches. Recycling goals are set by politicians based on what is politically palatable.

As a result, recycling goals vary widely among the 50 states. They range from a low of 10 percent to a high of 75 percent. These goals have two things in common: All of them can be divided by five and none of them were set with any thought as to what is realistically achievable.

Clearly, states that set low recycling goals are more likely to have low performing programs. However, while aggressive goals can lead to high performing programs, they can also lead to aggressive reporting by local governments desperate to show to their citizens that they are meeting the challenge.

When politicians set aggressive recycling goals, they forget about the complexity of the waste stream and of waste generators. I suspect most of them are thinking primarily of packaging and paper and don’t give much thought to the rest of the waste stream, yet packaging is only about 30 percent of the waste stream. Printed paper is less than 10 percent, and all the other paper products are less than 5 percent. Even if we could collect and recycle every single package and paper product, we would only be recycling a little more than 40 percent of the waste we make.

What else is left? Aside from food and yard waste, which are a bit less than 30 percent of the waste stream, the other 40 percent of our trash is “durable” and “non-durable” products. Durable products are defined by the Environmental Protection Agency as those with a lifetime of three years or more, and non-durables are used up more quickly. Products such as appliances and furniture are durables, while printed paper, plastic and paper utensils and clothing are non-durables. Our ability to recycle this vast array of products varies widely, yet when it comes to recycling goals, those differences don’t matter.

Moreover, we’ve seen tremendous changes in the waste stream over the last 15 years. These changes—less paper, lighter weight packaging, etc.—have a major impact on our ability to meet recycling goals, yet most politicians are blissfully unaware of their impact when they set those goals.

Where these recyclables are generated is another blissfully ignored factor. We have succeeded in creating a social norm for recycling in “detached” single family housing. We do less well in rural and more urban settings, and we have failed to establish a social norm for recycling in multi-family housing. About 17 percent of the population lives in the latter. And don’t forget that a considerable chunk of our recyclables is generated at businesses.

I’m not saying we should do without recycling goals because I understand their value. But I am saying we need a far more sensible approach to those goals and to how we measure progress in achieving them.

Let’s be like those Olympic athletes—or at least the ones that don’t cheat—and strive to be faster, higher and stronger. But let’s also be like them and have smart goals. And if you want to know what I think they are, tune in next month.

Chaz Miller is the Director of Policy and Advocacy at the National Waste & Recycling Association headquartered in Washington, D.C.

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