Sustainability Talks

Building Sustainable Communities Through Local Action Amid a Pandemic (Commentary)

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COVID-19 has not slammed the brakes on sustainability progress, but it has not been kind to local recycling and recovery systems, as demonstrated in several ways all around the country. This may have significant implications for our ability to lead the transition to a sustainable future as the U.S. needs recycling continuity, robust collection infrastructure, and cross-sector collaboration not just at the national, but also local and regional levels, to achieve key targets.

COVID-19 has underscored the importance of timely supply, distribution and collection of recycled materials. Many recycling systems were shut for periods of 2020, resulting in shortages. Several communities across the U.S. declared recycling and waste collection as “essential services.” Protection of the recycling supply chain has proven to be necessary to ensure a continued supply of goods and services to Americans.

Eight months into the pandemic, the situation we’re in continues to expose the weaknesses in our current collection and processing capability at the local level. For one, it is heavily reliant on manual labor – a challenge when there are increased health and safety challenges associated with the work. Communities with less automation have been particularly at risk of suspended recycling due to heavy reliance on temporary staffing agencies with similar labor constraints.

The pandemic has also shown that our recycling systems are not very nimble. Demand and waste pattern shifts resulting from foodservice industry pivots, office workers working at home and increased residential activity, and a subsequent shift in the type of recyclables and where they’re coming from have inundated recycling centers and driver and hauler demand.

As the American economy begins to rebuild following the COVID-19 pandemic, recycling will play an increasingly important role in the health of the nation’s economy. Through the building of new local circular economies based on the strength of local recycling programs, new green jobs are created. Economies are strengthened. This evolution can also result in the expansion of reuse and remanufacturing sectors as well as new value chains and markets.

That’s why the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, together with our regional and national partners, launched a new website and resource hub as part of Beyond 34: Recycling and Recovery for a New Economy, building on our existing work to support communities in their efforts to optimize local recycling and recovery programs, and help facilitate a strong transition beyond the pandemic. 

A key learning from the U.S. Chamber Foundation’s Beyond 34 initiative is that recycling and recovery need to be addressed at the local level in order to impact national outcomes and opportunity. Yet, our work in Orlando and Cincinnati has shown that local communities could also benefit from access to national resources and the opportunity to be part of a collective national approach toward recycling and recovery optimization.

To facilitate national impact through local action, the new Beyond 34 website contains the following resources:

  • Beyond 34 in a Box roadmap and set of customizable templates created in collaboration with Arizona State University to help communities across the country implement this stakeholder-driven approach to identifying and activating high opportunity interventions to improve their systems.
  • One stop shop Recycling and Recovery Resources Hub with stories of success and best practices from local communities, resources from leading recycling organizations, and information about potential collaborator partners.

Robust recycling and recovery systems are critical both in the current context of COVID-19 and in the resource-constrained future. The pandemic has exposed the shortcomings in these systems and reiterated the importance of proactively planning what needs to be in place to face them. Enhancing and optimizing local recycling capabilities and utilizing available tools to take action now will position us well for a sustainable, resilient, and ultimately circular future.

 Stephanie Potter is executive director, Sustainability and Circular Economy Program, for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation. Bob Gedert is Beyond 34's Cincinnati project manager.

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