I’m feeling grateful this season for my local chamber of commerce. It’s not because of what they did, but because of what they chose not to do at a point when our community got serious about increasing business recycling.
Over the past couple of decades our cities have robustly developed residential recycling, and more recently some have even adopted curbside composting. Residential diversion rates are pushing 60 percent in places.
But while progress is being made with the residential sector, diversion rates on the business side, particularly small- and medium-size businesses, have remained mostly stagnant. Despite 25 years of promoting voluntary recycling and offering financial incentives and technical assistance, most businesses are still lagging behind. Even in my progressive community of Boulder, Colo., commercial diversion has been less than 30 percent. Businesses landfill three times more trash than households, and by some accounts, less than 50 percent of businesses recycle.
Businesses generate 40 percent to 60 percent of the waste in every community, making them a critical player in moving toward zero waste. And when it comes to fighting climate change, increasing commercial recycling is a quick, proven and significant step to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. That’s why California is requiring all businesses in the state to recycle as one of the first actions under its landmark global warming policy.
The nexus of climate change and zero waste was the final piece of the puzzle for our community to decide to move toward a mandatory business recycling policy this year. We called the campaign “Cooling the Climate with Business Recycling.”
Like in most towns, when you’re talking about regulating local businesses, the 800-pound gorilla is the local chamber of commerce. Their support, or opposition, can make all the difference. So once we had done our work to make the case that voluntary approaches had proven insufficient and the time was right for a new ordinance, we headed over to the chamber to broach the topic. The meeting went well and they saw the value of our proposal, but unfortunately they felt that partnering with us to ask the council to create a new regulation on their membership was asking a little too much of them. But what they did worked out just as well, and shows that business leaders are recognizing their responsibility in addressing climate change and moving toward Zero Waste.
The chamber agreed to do two important things to help us:
1. They joined us in a public education campaign urging local businesses to start recycling. This new campaign was a bit edgy for them, as it used customers to pressure businesses to recycle. But they put their chamber logo alongside ours on the pledge card, and it made a big difference for the elected politicians and other local business leaders to see their chamber going public like that. (See photos of feedback cards.)
2. The chamber agreed to stay neutral and not fight us when we went public with our campaign to require all local businesses to recycle. This was an important step for the chamber toward putting on that green business suit. Even though they were not a vocal supporter, their lack of opposition allowed the policy to pass and enabled Boulder to join the ranks of some elite leading cities by requiring all businesses to recycle and compost.
But other local business interests didn’t stay quiet. Many well-known businesses in town rose to the occasion and emphatically voiced their support for a business recycling and composting policy. These were the businesses that are already doing their part for our planet by recycling, composting and reducing waste.
Nearly 30 local businesses signed a letter of support to the Boulder City Council promoting the business recycling and composting policy. Many were featured in local stories and videos showing how easily they integrated recycling and composting into their day-to-day operations.
But the most inspiring were the businesses that took their leadership to the next level by becoming public advocates, helping to pack city council chambers with their employees, and stepping up to the public microphone to share that zero waste wasn’t hard, that it made economic and environmental sense, and that businesses should be held responsible for doing their part in this community-wide effort.
This local example is just a microcosm of the larger global trend of businesses advocating for zero waste, sustainability and climate policies. The big corporate names and powerful business alliances lobbying at COP21 in Paris for global climate action reflects this shift on the larger stage. Last month in this blog I shared stories of several zero waste business leaders stepping into their new role as community advocates (and called for more).
By working together, community advocates and business leaders are going to be able to make change that will be good for everyone. The need for local investment in clean energy, zero waste infrastructure, and water conservation means new jobs and new profits ahead. But who is going to actually do the work that needs to be done? Local businesses need to step up to the challenge, because if they don’t, the local government will.
Eric Lombardi is the executive director of Eco-Cycle International and has had a long career in community resource conservation, social enterprise development and non-profit (NGO) organizational management.