How much of our waste stream should we be able to recycle? This is a relatively straightforward question that should be easy to answer analytically. Except that first we must define what we mean by “recycling,” then how to accurately count what is recycled and, finally, decide what we want to achieve with our recycling goals.
Theoretically, anything can be recycled, so why not set a goal of 100 percent? We could, but even the most zealous recycling advocates don’t believe that everything can be recycled. They may want to get to 100 percent recycling, but they grudgingly accept that the law of diminishing returns makes that goal economically unachievable. So the bar must be set lower, but how much lower?
The answer to that question is found in the politics of state and local legislative bodies. This is because recycling goals are often political statements. Consider state recycling goals. Currently they range from zero percent to 75 percent. While the range is wide, one thing all state recycling rate targets share is they can be divided by the number five. This is because when a state legislature or local government is setting a goal, the politicians rarely make any serious attempt to figure out what is achievable. Instead, they are looking at their political prospects or their legacies and pick a target that fits their needs and the politics of the moment.
If the number is low, say 25 percent or less, they are likely to be concerned with cost and with a political climate that will not support a high target. The problem is that aiming low won’t achieve much.
On the flip side, if the number is “high”—say above 50 percent—politicians justify the aggressiveness as “aspirational.” That is a good way of saying, “The number is unrealistic, but we think that shooting for the moon is a good idea.” Most importantly, they have a local political climate that is less concerned with cost.
Two states show the potential pitfalls of setting high goals. Florida, the first state to set a 75 percent goal, includes waste to energy in its definition of recycling. Waste to energy is a valuable technology for managing waste, but it is one and done. It is not recycling. In addition, the law originally allowed some odd accounting methods that lead to a few counties claiming a recycling rate higher than 100 percent. The lesson: Perhaps aggressive recycling rates lead to aggressive recycling reporting.
California also has a 75 percent goal. State bureaucrats are now grappling with how to achieve this goal. Waste to energy won’t count there. But the state’s recent background paper on package recycling showed that when reality hits the road, the numbers don’t add up. (Also check out NWRA’s response and other public comments on the paper.)
We can do better. We need to get serious and start setting achievable goals based on facts, not wishes. We need to start taking economics and the law of diminishing returns into account. We need to accept the reality that getting more people to recycle is a behavior change challenge that isn’t happening overnight. We need realistic goals with realistic time frames.
What do I think is a rational recycling goal? I’m not sure. The dramatic changes in material use, such as the decline in paper and the continual lightweighting of packages and products, pose additional challenges to goal setting. After all, how can you set a goal when you are not sure what your raw material mix will be in a decade? Maybe 50 percent is achievable nationally in another decade or so, if we can figure out how to recover food waste. But that’s just my guess. What’s yours?