Recycling is facing a midlife crisis. After an explosion in programs and a rapid increase in the recycling rate 20 years ago, recycling seems to be stagnant. But is it stagnant, or are we caught between fundamental changes in the recycling stream itself, along with daunting challenges in where to get new sources of recyclables? And could it also be that we are being impatient, expecting to run like a cheetah before we have fully learned how to walk?
First, a little history: Curbside collection of recyclables began in 1968 when Madison, Wis., and San Francisco began collecting newspapers separately from garbage. Eight years later, glass and cans joined newspapers in two Massachusetts towns: Marblehead and Somerville.
The next decade was a time of slow but steady growth. However, the 1987 voyage of the now-infamous garbage barge from New York City down the East Coast and back led to an immediate reaction. Thousands of new recycling programs were launched throughout the country, with PET plastic bottles being added to the mix. As the new millennium began, programs grew, adding more plastic and paper products. The recycling rate continued to rise.
Yet we have seen no increase since 2010. Recyclers are frustrated. Summits on how to “fix” recycling are becoming commonplace. The most recent of these was the “Forum on Policies to Increase Recycling of Packaging and Paper.” Sponsored by the Carton Council, whose members make and use aseptic packaging, it took place in September as part of this year’s Resource Recycling Conference. Eight speakers, representing local and state governments along with industry, discussed policies that can help recycling. Few real disagreements surfaced on key effective policies. Larger carts, better education, pay-as-you-throw systems, mandatory recycling and disposal bans (with markets for the banned products) were favored, to one extent or another, by most of the speakers, including myself.
I noted, however, that even the best policies have limits. For instance, program revenues and tonnages suffer as Americans use less paper and more plastic, and as glass comprises a higher percentage of the recycling stream. No policy can fix that. After all, does anyone seriously expect us to outlaw computers and force people to start using more paper?
In addition, we need to accept the importance of behavioral change. In the 1880s, we began to fundamentally alter our attitude toward trash. Instead of throwing it into the street, we were taught to put it in garbage cans. Education, enforcement and reliable service created a social norm in which we handled our garbage differently.
We need to do the same for recycling. We have been successful in doing this for single-family housing, but not for apartment buildings. We do well in some large single-tenant office buildings, but not as well in small businesses. Policy can help. But a strong commitment to public education, coupled with reliable service and light-handed but steady enforcement, will be more effective.
Most of all, we need patience. Americans didn’t learn overnight to put their garbage in containers on the street. That piece of behavioral change took more than three decades. Recycling will take even longer, especially in those “hard-to-recycle” places.
But we know it can be done. Seattle and Montgomery County, Md., are just two examples of places where a slow-but-steady approach and a commitment to education, reliable service and enforcement have led to significant recycling rates. That’s what is creating the recycling habit in many of those hard-to-recycle places. And I’ll bet that, if asked, the recyclers managing those programs would be the first to admit that patience and a healthy dose of realism are the best cure for the stagnant blues.
Chaz Miller is director of policy/advocacy for the National Waste & Recycling Association in Washington, D.C.