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Why (and How) to Talk Optimistically About Recycling Right Now

Be optimistic about the road ahead because real change is afoot, and we are standing on the edge of a defining moment.
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I firmly believe recycling is a cornerstone of sustainability, creating a circular economy and providing for a growing population on a finite planet. Yet, I have to admit that even I am struggling to remain upbeat in the face of what seems like a relentless stream of negative press around recycling.

Every day my news feed has another story on a town shuttering its recycling program or temporarily landfilling its recyclable materials until recycling markets improve. While sensational headlines like “Is this the end of recycling?” are part ploy to draw readers, the truth is that times are extraordinarily tough: industry experts are saying these are some of the worst markets possibly ever. Everywhere I go, from meetings with local elected officials to weekend BBQs, I am being asked what is up with recycling. Recently I was directly asked, “How do we talk optimistically about recycling right now and should we?” And I wanted to offer my best response to help fuel the positive side of the conversation.

First, let’s set the record straight: recycling is not dead, it’s not going away, and with few exceptions, your materials are still being recycled and mostly through domestic markets. The communities cited on the news that are landfilling recyclable materials are the exception, not the rule. Only about one-third of our scrap materials are exported, which still leaves the majority of recycling happening in the U.S., creating domestic jobs and supporting local economies.

Second, there is no future without recycling. We have a single planet with finite resources—we need recycled materials to replace and augment virgin resources. And more pressing than that, we have a climate crisis unfolding before us. According to the ICLEI, the leading network of local governments working toward sustainability, “Programs to increase recycling and composting rates can be among the most cost-effective actions local governments can take to reduce community GHG [greenhouse gas emissions] emissions." Recycling is needed now more than ever.

That said, while recycling is not dead, a better word might be “broken.” The economics of recycling have been broken for some time, there have been countless calls for reinvestment in U.S. domestic recycling markets for the better part of a decade, and the issues with contamination and a lack of investment in public education have all been escalating. The recent export bans from China have just brought all these mounting problems to a head. None of this is new news in the industry, but the collision of all these forces at once has been pretty rough and monumental.

Strengthening Recycling in the Long Run

What I see happening right now are a lot of much-needed course corrections. We are having some long-overdue and tough conversations, both in the industry and with our private sector and public sector partners, and moving toward some needed investments to ensure the long-term viability of recycling. Here are several upshots to the current market woes that attest recycling is going to come out stronger:

  • We are (finally!) investing in domestic recycling processing and markets. There are more than 17 new or expanding paper mills coming on board in North America, and new opportunities are coming in bottle-to-bottle recycling and expanded polypropylene recycling facilities. Retailers are coming forward in record numbers to pledge to use more recycled content and to make more of their products recyclable, and the buzz around a circular economy has never been louder.
  • We are recognizing recycling is more about quality than tonnage. Recycling contamination has gotten way out of control. Recycling is the feedstock to make new products, and you need quality in to make quality out. Communities and haulers are recommitting to recycling education and more transparency about what is recyclable, which will improve markets and reduce processing costs.
  • We are starting to have a real conversation about plastics. The lack of markets for junk plastics (aka Nos. 3, 6 and 7 plastics) isn’t a failure of the recycling industryit’s a failure of the plastics industry to design a product that’s compatible with recycling infrastructure or that they are willing to buy back to use in their products. Recycling alone is not going to solve our global problems with producing so much toxic plastic packaging and products. Finally, we are starting to talk about real solutions to eliminate unnecessary plastics like straws and bags and to phase out toxic plastics like PVC (polyvinyl chloride) and Styrofoam and to seriously plan a future where reduce and reuse are the priority over recycling. See my recent blog on a path forward with plastics here. 
  • We are shifting responsibility from cities to producers. The value of recyclables no longer covers the costs of collection and processing, which is forcing the conversation about how to pay for recycling. Cities are being asked to foot the bill, yet again, but this is an outdated and misguided approach. Cities were instrumental in getting recycling off the ground because it’s important to residents and helps protect our climate, air and water. However, in the long run, cities have no influence over whether products are made to be recyclable. Manufacturers need to take more responsibility for funding the collection and recycling of their materials, as they do in Canada and Europe. The price you pay at the counter needs to cover the full cost of the product, including the costs to recycle it at end of life. Three states introduced producer responsibility legislation this year, demonstrating a changing conversation about who should pay the bill for recycling.
  • We are getting closer to talking about the true costs. Recycling brings quantifiable benefits to our environment and local economies, but none of those benefits are included in the costs of providing the service. Full cost accounting is a method of monetizing the environmental and social benefits of recycling, and it demonstrates that the “costs” of recycling are less than landfilling or incineration when you factor in the damages and real public health and environmental costs caused by air, water and climate pollution. Full cost accounting needs to be integrated into local and national decision-making, and we need to address these economic shortfalls system-wide through policies like a carbon tax or plastics tax.
  • We are looking beyond the blue bin. Curbside recycling alone isn’t going to create a circular economy, so there is still plenty of work we can do in other areas that do not depend on global markets. For example, composting, made from organic materials that make up one-third to one-half of the waste stream, produces a nutrient-rich soil amendment used in local markets and offers tremendous potential as a solution to sequester carbon and draw down CO2 emissions. Recycling of construction materials is another giant opportunity to reduce waste, cut carbon pollution and build local markets.

The Important Work Ahead

In the next few years, recycling markets will rebuild with more focus on domestic opportunities. We will also clean up the recycling stream and be more transparent about what materials are actually recyclable, and we will use robots and other technologies to reduce sorting costs and improve efficiencies. That will all take time and a lot of hard work, but it’s not our biggest challenge. It’s not the recycling industry I’m worried about rebuilding—it’s our public image.

There is no denying that recycling has taken a beating in the media and public trust may be at an all-time low. Rebuilding the brand is going to be a significant challenge and may be our most important work. We need to keep recycling, and we need to keep improving recycling, while also being honest that it’s not a sufficient solution when it comes to reducing unnecessary plastic production or our overall unsustainable consumption patterns. We’re really just getting started on some of the tough conversations about how to transition to a circular economy, including how to pay for recycling in the long run and when we must simply reduce rather than just depend on recycling. This is why I have optimism about our road ahead because it means real change—not just incremental improvements—are afoot, and we are standing on the edge of a defining moment.  

Kate Bailey is the policy and research director for Eco-Cycle and helps citizens, government staff and elected officials implement zero waste solutions.

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