Last fall, I was presenting on a conference panel and sharing my thoughts about how we were living through history, that we would look back at this time in the recycling movement and say wow, that was a critical time, perhaps a watershed moment. At the time, we were trying to survive the worst recycling markets in 25 years and trying to navigate the tsunami of global backlash against plastic pollution. I wanted to convey the need to pause, to take a collective sigh of relief and acknowledge all that was rapidly changing around us, and to pat ourselves on the back for still showing up every day and remaining committed to recycling.
Of course, while that now seems like a distant memory as our world has been upended by COVID-19, the need to recognize where we are in history stands truer than ever. We, the recycling industry, are still here. Take a moment to acknowledge that this is no small accomplishment. We’ve largely survived the market crash post China National Sword, and, compared to so many industries, we are making it through this crisis. Things may not get better for some time, so while it would have been nice to have a quick breather on the sidelines and a lull in the action, the best I can offer is a quick pep talk and an invitation to find a moment to celebrate what we all do every day.
Rising to the level of essential
To start, the recycling industry has recently been declared an essential industry and service by the Department of Homeland Security. That right there is a Big. Damn. Deal. It’s an honor and a testament to the work we have done over the preceding decades. It wasn’t that long ago that the 2008 recession shook up the recycling industry, and I remember hearing folks reflect at the time that it was a positive sign that recycling had finally grown large enough to be impacted by global macroeconomic trends.
Now, as an essential service, there is no doubt that recycling has secured itself as a critical industry and that is a bright spot during these dark days. As with every other essential industry, we have some major challenges facing us right now around protecting workers and maintaining a safe workforce. There are also some temporary challenges with shuttered programs, but most of these closures are just transitional problems. Overall, we are largely operational and still serving the majority of markets.
Our role is deemed essential not just because we are protecting public health through proper and timely discard management. Recycling is now critical to the health of our economy—an essential part of the supply chain. Businesses depend on us every day to supply the feedstock to make new products (yes, including more toilet paper). The glass industry is one example of a coalition of manufacturers that relies on recycled content and is extending their thanks to local community recycling programs and recycling workers who are out collecting and processing materials every day to supply them with recycled glass for food and beverage packaging.
Looking back at what we’ve accomplished over 50 years
The other really big damn deal underfoot is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Sadly, it will not get the recognition it deserves in the coming weeks, but it at least deserves a moment of our time right now. Recycling has been fundamental to some of the successes we’ve achieved since the first Earth Day. Let’s step back for a moment and realize all that we have done.
Based on EPA data, since 1970 the U.S. has recycled and composted over 2.29 billion tons of materials. That is a truly monumental impact. Those efforts have saved an estimated 4.5 billion barrels of oil and reduced our carbon emissions by more than 5.5 billion tons of carbon emissions (MTCO2e), the equivalent of taking over 1 billion cars off the road for a year.* Wow. Let that sink in for a moment, then give yourself a pat on the back and share that out with your social media networks.
Our work is, of course, far from finished, but it’s helpful and important to acknowledge what we have done. We can then move forward from a place of doing better, collaboratively, and build on the important role that recycling does play today and will play in the future.
Rebuilding a more resilient, sustainable economy
COVID-19 has forced us to rapidly change our very fabric of being. It is hard and sad and frightening, even on the best days. But it also has shown a tremendous capacity for us to come together as a global collective and make personal and societal changes in support of the global good. There is a lot of movement afoot to harness that collective energy and use this opportunity to rebuild a more sustainable, resilient and just economy, and we in the recycling industry will play a big role in those efforts.
It has truly been an extraordinary past few years and there are no indications of calmer waters in the near term, but I have yet to meet someone in the recycling industry who got into this because it seemed easy. Recycling is complex and challenging because it is ever evolving and connected in so many ways to many deeper economic and social issues. But most importantly, recycling is essential, so all this to say thank you for all you do for our environment and our health. And, lastly, as we pause to reflect, please also give thanks to all those on the frontlines of managing this global pandemic. I am truly humbled by their service to their fellow humans and profoundly grateful for so many wonderful people in this world.
Kate Bailey is the Policy & Research Director at Eco-Cycle, one of the oldest recycling organizations in the U.S.
* Notes on data calculation: Composting data only through 1988. GHG and energy savings calculated through WARM v15 assumed mixed organics and mixed recyclables, compared to landfilling.