Recycling in America: Déjà vu all over again

July 31, 2015

5 Min Read
Recycling in America: Déjà vu all over again
Single-stream curbside recycling makes it easy for consumers, but makes it harder for recycling businesses to minimize material contamination.

Compared to many, I’m still a relative newcomer to the world of sustainable packaging. But I suspect it’s frustrating for newcomers and veterans alike to see the same problems crop up again and again in the packaging industry, seemingly never to be solved.

Sparked by the June 2015 release of U.S. EPA’s annual Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: Facts and Figures report (previously called the Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) Facts and Figures report), the most recent ones to re-emerge are the problems of the stagnant American recycling rate and the rising costs of recycling. Companies like Waste Management have spoken out, saying it is losing money on its recycling operations and can’t continue this way. Is American recycling doomed?

A recent Washington Post article cited contamination from the increase in single-stream recycling collection systems and a rise in dirty processing at materials recovery facilities (MRFs), along with lightweighting of packaging and falling commodity prices, as reasons for these problems. As the article reminded us about lack of sorting by the public, “Many of the problems facing the industry can be traced to the curbside blue bin—and the old saying that if it sounds too good to be true, it just might be.”

To make things worse, material contamination and the resulting lower value of commodity bales is increasing as dirty MRFs proliferate. In the same article, Patty Moore (of Sustainable Packaging Coalition member Moore Recycling) was quoted: “If we’re going to be serious about secondary-materials management, we’re really going to have to address it at a state or preferably national level,” she said. “We need to harmonize what we’re doing and make it work in a way that we’re not spending all this money and spinning our wheels.”

Reading this article, I was reminded of the Yogi Berra quote, “It’s déjà vu all over again.”

I conducted an extensive research project into how recycling infrastructure can increase recycling rates for CalRecycle from 2008-2011. From the research, I wrote a series of seven reports (all downloadable for free at The final report, “Closing the Loop: Roadmap to Effective Material Value Recovery” (2011), examined best and worst practices in recycling systems around the world and made 10 “best practice” recommendations to the state of California on how to increase recycling rates. The data I used may now be out of date, but I think the recommendations still resonate.

One of those recommendations was to maximize material quality by implementing a four (or better, a five) bin system with separate collection for glass, paper, all other recyclables, organics and trash. Another recommendation was to standardize the materials collected and collection method across a state or country so collection and sorting infrastructure can also be standardized, decreasing contamination and increasing quantity of recycled materials. These recommendations go directly to the heart of our current problems, and are still as valid today as they were five years ago.

I titled the section of the report about single-stream recycling “Popular but Problematic,” and it is still an apt description. Single-stream recycling is much easier for the public to understand, and it definitely results in more material collected.

However, if we’re serious about both the quality and value of materials we collect, we need to ask the public to sort more, not less. I believe they are willing to do it. Recycling is often cited by citizens as the one tangible way they help the environment. Let’s not give up on the public just yet!

And ideally, all industry groups representing packaging materials would stand together in support of more up-front sorting and the idea that all materials are valuable and need to be kept that way during collection and reprocessing.

I continue to find one recommendation from the Roadmap report absolutely critical, but haven’t seen it get much publicity: Consumer education is an on-going requirement for success. If we are serious about the quantity and quality of the materials collected, then we have to commit to educating the public forever.

Yes, you read that right.

It’s not just about sending a pamphlet when rolling carts are introduced. It should also include television, print, billboards/posters, social media, school curricula and more. They don’t have to be expensive, but they do have to be a priority. 

Finally, if we as a country are serious about the sustainability practices of recycling and using recycled content in our products, then we need to address the equally serious issue of the cost of recycling. Recycling is not free, so who is going to pay for it? The packaging industry, states and municipalities, and consumers all want to say, “Not I!” And often each group “helpfully” suggests that the others should be the ones to pay the costs.

My report looked closely at the policy of extended producer responsibility, or EPR, because it’s common in Europe and Canada, and at least in Europe, corresponds with extremely high recycling rates. However, there is resistance to implementing EPR in the U.S., with the rationale that the U.S. is not Europe and you can’t copy and paste a solution from one place to another.

A number of other funding mechanisms have been identified, but obstacles to their widespread implementation have emerged.

Maybe what we need is a uniquely American combination of policy and economic techniques, but to date no state or corporation is taking a strong lead to make serious changes. And let’s not forget Patty Moore’s comment from above—what we need is harmonization, not more fragmentation.

I haven’t lost hope that these issues can be solved, even as I see them rise and fall and rise in the public eye once again. I am sure we’ll get it right someday and the result will be a society that prioritizes sustainable materials management and uses resources wisely. But I am hoping that day comes sooner, rather than later. In the meantime, read “Closing the Loop: Roadmap” and let me know if you think the recommendations are still valid.

Liz Shoch is assistant director of GreenBlue’s Sustainable Packaging Coalition. For more info about the SPC, visit

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