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Recycling's Pioneers

May 1, 1999

7 Min Read
Recycling's Pioneers

Kivi Leroux

In the early 1970s, when Garbage Reincarnation, a nonprofit recycler in Sonoma County, Calif., encouraged local residents to bring in newspaper, cardboard, glass, aluminum cans, used motor oil, car batteries and other materials for recycling, environmentalists nationwide were intrigued and wanted to know how the operation worked.

Across the San Francisco Bay, the Ecology Center's project in Berkeley to collect newspapers that residents stacked at their curbs generated similar interest. These organizations, and a handful of others like them, were trying something few dared.

Nearly 30 years later, as state recycling laws are common and recycling opportunities are available to more than 180 million Americans, these nonprofits reflect on how they initiated the post-consumer recycling revolution.

Now, as the recycling industry evolves, the question is: What is the new role of nonprofit recyclers? Will they continue to push for policies for environmental and community benefits, weaving environmental goals into the industry's vocabulary? Will they continue to break ground by recycling materials others won't touch? Will they develop new markets and programs for recyclables? Or could it be all of the above?

"Nonprofits are willing to wrestle with the issues, to do the research and development," says Eric Lombardi, executive director of EcoCycle, a Boulder, Colo., nonprofit recycler that processes more than 3,000 tons per month (tpm) of recyclables.

Take plastics recycling, for example. In the 1980s, no one knew what to do with post-consumer plastics. But R2B2, a network of recycling facilities operated by the nonprofit development corporation Bronx 2000, New York, was willing to find out.

"R2B2 may have been the first recycler to convince both local and national manufacturers to use post-consumer resins," says Mike Schedler, who worked for Bronx 2000 from 1980 to 1994. By the late 1980s, R2B2 was responsible for about 10 percent of plastics recycling nationwide.

"By running ahead of the pack and working on the complex issues, we were very successful," says Schedler, who now is director of technology for the National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR), Charlotte, N.C.

Grading and testing systems developed by R2B2 still are used in plastics recycling today.

In addition to research and development, the nonprofit sector has taken an active role in public education and advocacy. Nonprofits fall into the gap between the private sector and government agencies. They are not necessarily motivated by profit like private companies, and even with their public missions they are less affected by changing politics than government agencies.

This status as neither completely public nor private allows the organizations to take the lead on many issues. Yet, there are drawbacks as well, says David Kirkpatrick, co-founder of SunShares, a nonprofit recycler in Durham, N.C., which operated curbside collection programs in the Research Triangle Park area from 1989 until 1998.

"When you manage a recycling operation as a nonprofit, you don't get the same benefits that you would if you were running your own business," says Kirkpatrick, who currently leads the Sustainable Jobs Fund, Durham, N.C. "You don't get paid as much, and you don't have complete control because you report to a board of directors and often to the government agencies supplying your funding."

Despite the hardships involved with running nonprofit organizations, EcoCycle's Lombardi believes nonprofits always have and always will be on recycling's cutting edge.

"The future is about eco-efficiency and sustainability," he says. "The waste industry needs to come to terms with that if they are going to be a 21st century industry."

In many segments of the industry, companies and nonprofit organizations are working together to develop programs.

Jacy Davis, executive director of Solana Recyclers, Encinitas, Calif., has initiated partnerships with several haulers in San Diego County. "As a nonprofit, we can get grants to help haulers start the programs we want to see happen."

Davis' staff works with the haulers' employees to develop programs and encourage community participation. As a result, Solana Recyclers sees increased diversion of materials from local landfills, and the haulers initiate a new service with minimal start-up costs.

Solona's community surveys indicate an interest in recycling.

Solana Recyclers has a long history of helping to launch private-sector recycling programs. The company started the first curbside collection program in San Diego County in 1983. And, in 1989 when the California legislature passed AB 939 setting a 50 percent landfill diversion goal for municipalities, haulers used Solana's methods. Private haulers used their assets to surpass Solana's success within a few years, Davis says.

Thus, Solana gave up its now-familiar curbside business in favor of initiating cutting-edge programs in the county, such as on-farm composting and food waste collection.

Other nonprofits also are using their knowledge of the markets to promote their advocacy efforts. "Operating a recycling business gives us legitimacy and credibility when we talk about policy issues affecting recycling," Lombardi says.

But the number of nonprofits with recycling operations is minuscule compared to the number of public education and advocacy organizations, including statewide professional and trade associations, "buy recycled" alliances, lobbying groups and business assistance organizations that research waste prevention, manufacturer responsibility, minimum recycled content, mandatory recycling and landfill bans.

Jenna Kunde, executive director of WasteCap Wisconsin, Milwaukee, a nonprofit that educates businesses on waste reduction, thinks nonprofits are well-positioned to develop creative partnerships.

"The business community we are trying to reach seems to be more comfortable working through a nonprofit than they would with a regulatory agency or a garbage company," Kunde says. This comfort results in increased business participation in waste prevention and recycling programs.

Organizations like WasteCap are showing businesses how waste prevention can save money, including creating outlets for the electronics reuse and construction and demolition materials. Some nonprofits are developing end-user markets for mixed plastics and low-grade paper.

Many nonprofits are maintaining their recycling operations, regardless of the for-profit presence, because these revenue-generating ventures allow them to pursue the public education and advocacy work they do well.

EcoCycle's staff, for example, includes the equivalent of seven full-time people working on environmental education, more than any private company or government agency in Colorado. Revenues from the sale of recyclable materials pay their salaries.

Several other nonprofits are starting their own manufacturing enterprises, or they are joining with existing manufacturers to create new markets.

"It's always a challenge to come up with a program that works," says Kate Krebs, executive director of the Arcata Community Recycling Center on California's rural North Coast.

Krebs launched a glass manufacturing facility several years ago and now is planning to manufacture the plastics her recycling center collects.

Finding the Markets Public education, recycling operations and manufacturing all are worthwhile activities - if there is a market for the recyclables. Finding these markets also is the nonprofit organization's job.

"It's like natural succession," says Linda Christopher, who managed Garbage Reincarnation's public education programs from 1989 to 1998. "Keeping up with the changing landscape is difficult, but it's required if you want to survive."

As program director of the Materials for the Future Foundation (MFF), San Francisco, Christopher lobbies recyclers to develop local markets for their materials to avoid exporting them. This, MFF argues, is better for the environment, the economy and the community.

However, funding for recycling programs can be difficult and time consuming, particularly for nonprofit organizations without a profit-making enterprise. Depressed markets diminish recyclers' revenues, causing cutbacks in local and state government funding and a waning interest in recycling.

"As cities meet their recycling goals, they become less interested in recycling issues," Solana's Davis says. "We have to keep getting the information in front of them."

The role of nonprofit organizations will become more important as government agencies reduce recycling staffs and the waste industry consolidates further, predicts WasteCap Wisconsin's Kunde.

Ensuring the long-term viability of nonprofit recyclers is a goal of the National Recycling Coalition's Nonprofit Recyclers Council (NpRC), Alexandria, Va.

"Nonprofits do a lot of hand-holding in their communities, bringing together business, government and environmentalists, and showing them the link between recycling and a community's long-term sustainability," NpRC co-chair, Alan Silverstein, says.

Nonprofit recyclers have played a leading role in integrating recycling into communities with programs and activities, such as:

* Residential curbside recycling;

* Recycling drop-offs and buy-backs;

* Office paper collection from businesses;

* Recycling market generation;

* Reuse depots;

* Used building materials yards;

* Community-based business developments; and

* Small-scale manufacturing with recycled materials.

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