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Communicating with Customers about Contamination

Customers need to understand that high contamination rates not only have an economic cost, but make recycling itself less effective. 

Getting customers to recycle correctly remains an ongoing struggle. Customers need to understand that high contamination rates not only have an economic cost, but make recycling itself less effective. Here is one way to talk to customers about recycling as part of your education efforts.

Why do you recycle? Are you trying to save natural resources? Lower greenhouse gas emissions? Create jobs? Save landfill space? These are the most common reasons people give for recycling. They are all fine responses.

But regardless of your reason for recycling, one fact remains: Recyclables are simply a raw material. Nothing more, nothing less.

And recycables are put into competition with other sources of raw materials, usually virgin ores or fibers, to be bought by manufacturers to transform them into products. 

Yes, recycling most products saves natural resources and lowers greenhouse gas emissions. EPA’s data on the positive environment impact of recycling is overwhelming. Unfortunately, however, we don’t know how to monetize those environmental benefits into financial benefits for recycling programs. 

Yes, recycling creates jobs. But it also destroys jobs in competing industries, particularly in the industries that create the raw materials that compete with recyclables. 

Yes, recycling lowers the need for disposal capacity. But it does not eliminate the need for landfills or waste-to-energy facilities. Moreover, while recycling saves on disposal costs, the value of your recyclables is usually less than those disposal savings. 

Regardless of why you recycle, the reality is simple. When you place your recyclables on the curbside you are a raw material supplier. If someone doesn’t find value in those raw materails and buy them, they will end up in a disposal facility. So you need to remember that you are now competing with other suppliers of raw materials.

Virgin raw materials have two tremendous advantages over recyclables – they have a good reputation for predictable quantity and quality. People who buy raw materials for manufacturing facilities value those qualities.

Even though the quantity of recyclables has become more predictable, quality remains a problem. This is important because no production manager wants to gamble with the quality of raw materials.

Virgin materials have a quality advantage because they come from a limited number of industrial producers who know exactly what they are supposed to produce for end markets. Recyclables are produced by 320 million Americans, few of whom are thinking of themselves as raw material suppliers.

To make matters worse, recyclables are a commodity whose price fluctuates. Recycling’s current problems are caused in part by the collapse of those prices from a period of unusually good prices to a period of lows. Because of the weakness of recyclables compared to virgin raw materials in terms of quantity and quality, recyclables tend to be at the tail end of commodity markets. In fact, the Environmental Research and Education Foundation studied the value of a wide array of commodities and determined that the value of recyclables fluctuate the most. 

So, when you put your recyclables in your bin feel good about the invaluable benefits you are giving to the environment and the economy while being realistic that we still need disposal capacity.

But most important, be ruthless about ensuring that the quality of materials you are now providing will meet the standards of those industries that need them as raw materials. Follow the instructions provided by your local recycling program to the letter. It’s better to err on the side of caution—if in doubt, keep it out—than to naively hope that someone will find use in what can’t be recycled. We can all do better at this. If we do, recycling will thrive.

Regardless of why you recycle, how you recycle is even more important.

Chaz Miller is the director of policy and advocacy at the National Waste & Recycling Association headquartered in Washington, D.C. 

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