When Are Recyclability and Zero Waste the Wrong Goals?

When Are Recyclability and Zero Waste the Wrong Goals?

For three thoughtful days recently in Indianapolis, my colleagues and I became immersed in the language, implications and policy challenges of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) evolving Sustainable Materials Management (SMM) initiative.

Formally introduced back in 2009 in its publication “Sustainable Materials Management: the Road Ahead,” the EPA has recently hinted that its efforts are becoming more serious. The current name change to its perennial report on municipal solid waste (MSW) characterization and composition now titled, “Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: Facts and Figures,” is an example.

Starting with its decidedly difficult acronym, SMM is often misconstrued to be something other than intended. It isn’t neatly pigeon holed, but crosses barriers, traditional roles and hierarchies. To say that our group’s initial grasp of sustainable materials management was strained would not be an exaggeration. After all, SMM takes some of the self-righteous notions, to which the waste and recycling industry have been taught to subscribe, and turns them slightly askew.

You see, as honorable as our intentions might be, we’re being asked to accept that our efforts in planning for recyclability, diversion and waste management can be misplaced goals, under certain circumstances. In fact, those very aspirations can create roadblocks for other more comprehensive sustainable solutions to arrest our insatiable consumption of resources.

Don’t misinterpret that to mean that these longstanding practices are suddenly being eliminated. A better view would be that they have been relegated to a smaller segment of an overall process. One that incorporates the broader life cycle of products and material components. One that doesn’t assume planned obsolescence as an option. One that evaluates and tries to affect the material composition during design, rather than determining how to deal with it post production or end of life.

What it doesn’t do is dictate recyclability, reuse or waste reduction as the ultimate performance objectives. Therein lies the paradigm shift for recyclers, or those who subscribe to a zero waste philosophy. SMM looks at a combination of factors throughout the system such as energy, logistics, resource conservation and toxicity, not only what happens to them once they have been discarded. The sum effect of the analysis determines the best options for design and management. This could mean that in spite of its inability to be recycled, an item may have benefits in other categories that outweigh that perceived shortfall.

For decades, advocates have demanded products and packaging to be recyclable above all else. In an effort to attract green consumers, manufacturers responded, even when more sustainable options existed. This forced difficult to handle, marginally marketable, yet technically recyclable items into municipal collection programs. MRFs were left scrambling with the cost of developing mechanisms to manage the material along with increasing residue rates from similar but non-recyclable products.

Will consumers and recyclers be able to let go of this somewhat misplaced passion? Can we stop the train before zero waste planners perpetuate a cycle of bad metrics? Are state legislators and regulatory agencies informed and capable of making the much needed revisions to local mandates and performance measurements?  Are they prepared to establish accountability mechanisms that promote clean marketable commodities by reducing contamination at its source? Are the resources available to develop the infrastructure necessary to provide universal access for proper handling of recoverable and recyclable materials? Should consumers or producers share or independently be held responsible for the consequences of their choices?

These questions just hint at the complexity of issues that encompass a shift to SMM in the realm of discarded materials alone. Upstream decisions and concerns are even more mind boggling.

Based on the 2009 report, certain milestones would be attained by 2020. A much anticipated update is scheduled for release in the near future with accomplishments and new mile markers extending to 2050.

So where and how do recyclers start to travel down this “road ahead?”

I am not convinced that my colleagues and I departed with any true consensus. However, I’ll share my own personal take on the matter.

We need to encourage the EPA to bring state regulators up to speed on SMM to ensure that the goals and objectives of state plans begin to mirror these more refined concepts, rather than the narrow focus on end-of-pipeline controls. They need only to look to the state of Oregon to find a useful roadmap.

To make data-driven decisions, what we measure must complement the goals and objectives of SMM. There needs to be great consistency in data format and reporting across all states and territories. Checks and balances to vet that data are even more essential.

Because consumers respond to “greenwashing” we need to ensure that we communicate “green” in a broader fashion to decrease the need and opportunity for manufacturers to rely on token recyclability as a marketing tool.

We need flexibility to assess products and materials in relationship to local conditions and capacity. For instance, in addition to a desire to minimize waste disposal, policies on glass, plastic packaging, CRT’s must consider financial resources, environmental liabilities, logistical and processing capabilities.

Recycling organizations, state regulatory agencies, local government}, and the private sector must pool resources “to educate, educate some more, and then educate again” (to steal a phrase) on how to recycle right.

Most of all, recyclers must be open minded and be prepared to relinquish their call for recyclability to be the ultimate defining guideline in product or material design or for zero waste and diversion to be the sole solutions to end-of-life management.

Michele Nestor is the President of Nestor Resources Inc., based in the Greater Pittsburgh area, and chair of the board of directors, of the Pennsylvania Recycling Markets Center, Penn State, Harrisburg. She helps private and public sector organizations develop strategic plans to survive in a transitioning marketplace.

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