This is the third in a three-part series from The Recycling Partnership on collaborating to drive effective engagement – and action – around recycling. Read part one about recycling’s potential and impact and part two about the circular economy.
Q: What is recycling?
Is recycling when you put a bottle in the bin, a can in the cart? Is it when the recycling truck picks it up? Is it when it’s sorted and sold into the market? Or is it when that stuff is turned into something and put back on the shelf?
A: It’s all of the above.
To fully grasp the concept of the circular economy – the subject of our last article for Sustainable Brands and something that has been garnering a lot of press and support lately – you have to take an airplane-seat view and look at the entire life cycle of the package you’re putting into your shopping bag and taking home with you.
First off, zoom out to look at the entire system. The crucial part of the recycling journey that comes after the store shelf, but before recycling markets, is fractured. It involves millions of players (consumers), and thousands of local governments. This point of capture is loosely – in fact, barely – connected.
Mapping a path to success
It’s easy to forget how fractured our solid waste and recycling industry is across the U.S. What’s standard procedure in Portland, Oregon isn’t when you dock your ship at Portland, Maine. The list of recyclable items in Walla Walla, Washington isn’t the same as in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
There are almost 20,000 towns and cities in the U.S., and that myriad of communities each have local governments managing their own very diverse programs, with their own set of unique challenges to overcome, including logistics, infrastructure, budgets and local politics. Unfortunately, there is no magic wand to wave to make everything work together.
Barring a recycling wizard waving that wand, what can be done is on-the-ground work to improve the system that we do have. In every community, residents have recyclables leaving their homes, either in their recycling or their trash. We will consider it a success when it is as easy to recycle as it is to throw something away, and residents take advantage of that service. With infrastructure improvements and improved consumer engagement with clear messaging, we can create that success.
Hitting a recycling “Target”
Retail giant Target just released some bold new sustainable packaging goals. One of its goals is to improve how more than 25 percent of the U.S. population recycles by 2020 by supporting our mission to increase the quantity and quality of recycling across the country.
Let’s take a look at how that breaks down:
- There are approximately 130 million households in the U.S., with more than 90 million single-family and about 40 million multi-family homes.
- From the Sustainable Packaging Coalition’s Study on Availability of Recycling, of those 130 million U.S. households, only 53 percent have access to automatic curbside recycling, meaning that they receive curbside recycling pick-up when they have trash pick-up, and 35 million other households either rely on having to drop off their recycling at a depot or have no program at all.
- Our collaboration with Target and other partners is overhauling the U.S. recycling system and providing improved service for households.
Filling in the puzzle
Our recently released Annual Report shows that we have reached 10 million residents through our work, by:
- Providing free technical support to empower hundreds of communities to make their programs better, reaching a total of three million households.
- Giving leveraged grants to unlock public funds, growing curbside recycling access across the U.S., benefitting 400,000 households.
- Delivering leading-edge communication and education programs to encourage 1.6 million households to recycle right.
- Developing missing tools and key program elements provided free of charge for communities of 5.6 million households.
So, how can we reach the other 20 million Americans? How do we translate our on-the-ground efforts, resulting in tons of recycled materials, into new jobs and new products on the shelf? How can we continue to piece together this sustainability puzzle?