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March 10, 2014

Recycle Often. Recycle Right.

That’s Waste Management’s message to our customers, neighbors, and broader community of stakeholders. It’s much more than a simple refrain.

Forty years ago, the recycling challenge was about getting people and businesses at the grassroots level to embrace a new way of discarding waste. We started bundling newspapers, sorting out plastics and glass, and resisting the old habit of throwing everything in the garbage.

That was then. The good news is that we’ve successfully hammered home the “recycle often” half of the equation. Today, many communities have even mandated aggressive, long-term, zero-waste goals to divert sometimes up to 90 percent of their waste from the local landfill. And, as Anne Johnson pointed out in her piece for (Beyond Curb Assessing True Recyclability) we have so firmly engrained “recycle often” in the public consciousness that the Federal Trade Commission allows any product to be marketed as unqualifiedly recyclable if it’s sold in a market where a “substantial majority” of consumers have access to recycling facilities. But, as Johnson also points out, what’s missing is a true understanding of how a package will “behave” in a typical material recovery facility and whether there is a viable end market for that package.

Johnson’s larger point is well taken. Having won the public’s support of recycling often, we must now add a key element: we must recycle right. Recycling is getting more complex with changing material streams. A fundamental requirement for “recyclability” is that a material must have enough value (i.e. a market) and volume to make it worthwhile to invest in the equipment and process of recycling it. Let’s take plastic PET bottles. They make up a small portion of the overall waste stream but PET has a high value and it is worthwhile for recyclers to invest in technology to separate this material for recycling. Conversely, the cost to recycle glass exceeds its value and has increased the overall cost of recycling. Yet, because glass is so heavy it makes up as much as 25 percent of the material collected for recycling in some communities. Thus, in spite of the upside down economics, we continue to recycle glass.

The right materials really do matter. Single-stream recycling (which allows you to put all your recyclables into one convenient wheeled cart) has increased recycling volume by as much as 40 percent in some communities. That’s great news! It has also, however, allowed recycling of a broader stream of materials, which can be confusing as customers mix non-recyclable and recyclable items together, thus complicating and adding cost to the process. Bowling balls, garden hoses, electronic cables and car parts may be recyclable in some way or another – but not in the recycling cart! It’s easy to imagine how handling these sorts of materials requires extra labor and damages automated equipment, all leading to increased costs for us, and ultimately for our customers.

At the end of the day, it’s not just important that a given community hit its diversion target. If materials cannot be repurposed within the existing market framework, we still have miles to go to reach the end goal of sustainability. We must continue to beat the drum for recycling and, at Waste Management, we’re continuing to look for solutions to recycle these hard-to-manage materials.

But, recycling touches us all, in one way or another, and all of us – producers, recyclers, municipalities and consumers –share in the responsibility to work together to find solutions so that together, we all ensure the sustainability of recycling.