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An inside look at how we can grow sustainable recycling programs in the U.S.

An inside look at how we can grow sustainable recycling programs in the U.S.
Curbside recycling programs at Waste Management diverted 15 millions tons of material from the landfill in 2013.

On Sept. 24, 2014, TerraCycle CEO Tom Szaky wrote in Packaging Digest about the recyclability of packaging and the role of the solid waste industry in recycling certain types of materials. Here is Waste Management’s view of the issue.

Consumers have made their interest in recycling abundantly clear: They will recycle when recycling is convenient and cost effective. Thanks to the growth of cart-based single-stream recycling over the past decade, we have seen growth in curbside recycling programs in communities across the nation.

According to U.S. EPA’s most recent figures, Americans recycled and composted 87 million tons of waste in 2012 or 35% of the total waste generated in the country—more than twice the rate in 1990.

In 2013, Waste Management recycled 15 million of those tons, or 17.6% of all of the material recycled in the U.S. We have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in recycling infrastructure that allows us to collect and process recyclables from customers efficiently and conveniently. Of course, none of us in the recycling industry are satisfied with those national figures; nor is Waste Management with its recyclables numbers. All of us in the recycling space want to see much more recycling. Indeed, there’s significant opportunity—and challenges.

Fifty two percent of the municipal waste stream is composed of the basic materials that we can recycle in our curbside recycling carts (primarily packaging materials such as tin, aluminum, plastic, glass and paper). This means that even if Americans recycled 100% of the material accepted in curbside recycling programs, we would recycle about 52% of the waste that we generate. High-achieving communities are now focusing on recycling food and yard waste, which makes up another 28% of the waste generated in the U.S.

Depending on local community preference, many areas target additional commodities to recycle. Textiles, e-waste and wood add a few more percentage points for some cities’ recycling. All of these materials will need to be recycled to achieve the 70% and 75% recycling goals that many communities have set. Cities like Portland, Seattle and San Francisco—that boast recycling rates that exceed 60% and even 70% —understand the importance of working with partners all along the value chain to be successful. They work with the packaging industry, retailers, residential customers, commercial generators and local recyclers to develop creative new recycling programs meeting their communities’ unique needs.

What’s the surest path to increase recycling? The most successful recycling programs in the U.S. and in Europe include both economic drivers and regulations reliably enforced. Industry leaders in the U.S. from the product and packaging manufacturing industry, retailers, recycling companies and forward-thinking government policy makers are working side-by-side to broadly implement policies proven to increase recycling—policies like universal (commercial and residential) recycling, material bans and pay-as-you-throw trash rates work and are gaining popularity. The successful European programs include these same policies. These same industry leaders, including WM, are collaborating throughout the supply chain to drive systematic change. This includes engaging manufacturers during the design phase to advise on end-of-life material value and considerations needed to properly recover recyclables within the urban areas that generate the largest amounts of material.

In the U.S., the political process guarantees the customer’s voice in determining how much to pay for curbside service. Some customers and communities are willing to support premium recycling services, and others are quick to let their elected officials know that “low cost works just fine, thank you very much.”

Global markets play a significant role in recycling in the U.S. as well. Roughly 35% of the material collected for recycling in the U.S. is exported to recyclers in Asia and Europe. Market demand in the U.S. alone is not sufficient to accommodate the supply of recyclables. End markets are the ultimate litmus test when it comes to recycling, and they determine whether reuse of packages or products made of laminates or other multi-materials makes economic sense. Yes, economics do matter.

Waste Management has focused primarily on recycling large volumes of recyclables cost-effectively, as the customer demands. There certainly is a role for niche programs, like the alternative that TerraCycle has developed, to handle materials with little market value. Waste Management also offers a mail back option for cell phones, ink jet cartridges, laptops, tablets and iPods. In 2013, we refurbished and remarketed 3.9 million of these devices for reentry into the market place. While the actual tons processed in these programs are small, they provide solutions for products that require special handling to protect workers and the environment.

The reality is that recycling must meet the needs of a range of customers across the U.S., and many are not willing to support the cost of expensive recycling programs for those materials with low or no value. Any suggestion that recycling rates are driven by the solid waste industry’s disposal capacity is, well, a canard—and an old one at that. Waste Management continues to look for ways to find value in materials that continue to be discarded—at a cost the customer is willing to pay. We see our competitors doing the same. Success will hinge on partnerships and a commitment to expand recycling policies that are proven to be successful. It takes hard work to do it right. Only with collaboration across industries and communities will we be successful. Together, we can grow sustainable recycling programs in the U.S.

Barry Caldwell, svp, corporate affairs and chief legal officer at Waste Management, has primary responsibility for legal, corporate secretary, state and federal Policy, corporate communications and community relations, real estate, security and aviation. He is a member of the company’s senior leadership team and reports to Waste Management president/CEO, David Steiner.

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