In order to develop effective recycling solutions, we must first understand the problem.
This past year has no doubt brought challenges to the recycling industry—with the closure of Chinese borders continuing to put pressure on domestic markets, ongoing concerns of contamination and the fluctuation in market pricing. The aftershocks of these issues are felt by everyone, including consumers, businesses, manufacturers, MRFs and entire countries. As much as the concerns can seem daunting, there are solutions in reach that can help to drive the industry forward.
When we look back decades ago, the process of recycling was much simpler for consumers to understand. Products were manufactured with fewer materials making them simpler to sort for the everyday person. The ease of sorting common items like glass, newspaper and cardboard contributed to the success of municipal collection programs. Today, we are faced with a much bigger challenge, both as consumers and as recycling professionals. Development of new polymers that are incorporated into our products, and new methods of packaging are causing confusion and making it challenging for the user to understand how to properly recycle these products. Additionally, MRFs are finding it difficult to keep up with the processing of these materials, as new technology needs to be adopted to properly handle these changes. While efforts are being made to increase recycling rates and reduce waste, many of the strategies and initiatives are being ignored as businesses continue to manufacture products with excessive packaging and consumers continue to buy them.
Busch Systems Spectrum containers incorporating color coordination and signage to encourage and communicate proper sorting behavior.
Lack of Standardization
In order to develop effective solutions, we must first understand the problem. By far, one of the most complex and complicated issues with recycling is one that affects everyone, one that is so widespread that it leaves people frustrated to the point of throwing everything in the trash. This issue is lack of standardization.
If we look at coffee cups as an example of a commonly disposed item, every municipality will require to sort it differently. Some may require coffee cups to go in the waste, mixed, organics or paper streams. This is because there is immense variation in recycling centers due to a lack of standardization in processing. Some recycling centers have technology capable of separating the thin plastic or wax coating from the paper cup, some do not. Some have incinerators or anaerobic digesters allowing the cup to be transformed into useable energy. While others have none of the above and dispose of coffee cups as waste because there is no market for them. This is just one material causing confusion in one municipality. What about grocery bags, soiled napkins, greasy pizza boxes, pill bottles, broken glass, ink cartridges? The list goes on and on.
The amount of variation in accepted materials, even from municipalities close in proximity can be confusing, and it really complicates the issue for everyone. When cities make decisions about what items to collect, they look into a variety of factors, such as is there a purchaser or market that can use this material, can we make energy from it through incineration or decomposition, is it economical for us to separate it and do we have the technology to do so?
When it comes to a lack of standardization, it is not just the collection of materials that are inconsistent, but the containers options as well. We are all familiar with the variation in bins that we see in the public spaces; they include different shapes, sizes, colors, have different openings and are placed in many different configurations. This goes for signage as well—some use just words to communicate what goes where, some pictures and icons.
Overcoming a lack of standardization is arguably one of the largest waste management challenges facing businesses, individuals, municipalities and governments. A general lack of standardization leads to recycling and waste stream contamination, which ends up costing sorting facilities billions of dollars annually as they require the technology and manpower to sort through all the unrecyclable materials. Not only this, but contamination also degrades the quality of the end-recycled material, lowering its resale value, limiting purchaser options and, in some cases, leaving the entire batch of recycled material destined for the landfill.
As individuals and sustainability experts, ensuring recycling is kept simple is the best thing we can do to help achieve consistency. Solutions to combat the issue of lack of standardization include the use of the same recycling and waste containers throughout your facilities. These containers should also support restrictive openings and clear color coordination for easy stream recognition in order to offer as many visual cues to users as possible. These visuals provide a moment of education to the user, and communicate the message and proper action, again and again. Additionally, use clear and concise labeling and signage options that leave the guess work out of it. Simple, easy to read signs at eye level, that incorporate both graphics and a short list of items, have proven to be the most effective.
Another suggestion is to determine what kind of labels and signage options your city uses in public spaces and use this same format—repetition and consistency is a huge driver of long-term learning and information retention. Many cities offer an online program on their website that allows a consumer to enter a product, like pizza boxes, and it will tell you where to dispose of it correctly. Knowing and communicating this information on signage can help people to make better informed decisions, increase diversion rates and lower contamination.
Costs of Recycling
Another big challenge in upholding a successful recycling and waste strategy are the associated costs. Outfitting an entire building with new, consistent and effective recycling containers can sometimes be expensive. Luckily, there are recycling and waste container designers and manufacturers who develop products with longevity and durability in mind, and the investment you made today will be working for you, for years to come.
Something to consider—if your business is starting to recycle for the first time, there is a cost of adding an additional collection service on your waste management plan. If before you were paying $80 per pickup for a 6-cubic yard container of waste, now you may be paying that same amount, plus an additional $30 for a container of recycling. The good news here is that as your program improves, and the amount of waste you generate starts to decrease, pickups will also decrease, and you will begin to benefit from cost savings.
How can we either mitigate or minimize the financial impact of recycling as a business owner? There are lots of opportunities to offset the cost of a recycling program, and most of them begin with opening a line of communication with your recycling and waste collection service. Find out how exactly you are being charged for collection. Is it a flat monthly fee regardless of the amount collected? Are you being charged per pickup or do you have a cost per ton agreement? If you are being charged per pick up, there is a good chance you could save 50 percent or more by introducing a recycling program instead of just waste as you divert more and more materials from the waste stream. And if you are charged per ton, every pound removed from waste is money saved.
Keep an eye out for potential grants and funds made available by your state or province’s environmental protection or conservation agencies. This will help to offset the costs of a new recycling program. Landfills are expensive, and policy makers will help you make the changes necessary to ensure that they have a long lifespan to reduce costs associated with creating a new one.
In today’s day and age, people are beginning to open their eyes to environmental issues. You are seeing more and more successful businesses popping up with sustainability built right into their core values. There is tremendous value associated with branding yourself as an eco-conscious company that draws attention from consumers who make purchases or align themselves with sustainable organizations. Conversely, you are seeing a lot more negative attention being directed at companies that fail to implement change to reduce their environmental impact. Implementing, marketing and promoting a successful recycling system is one of the cheaper and impactful changes you can make as a company to align yourself with the sustainable choices consumers are making today.
An interesting point to be made about the challenges associated with recycling is that many of the same pain-points are not felt globally. There are many European countries such as Sweden and the Netherlands that have experienced better recycling and diversion rates than North America for more than 40 years. Sweden has had national legislation and policy framework dedicated to the continual improvement of recycling and resource recovery for decades, while it seems North America has fallen quite behind.
There are solutions available out there to our challenges of lack of standardization and the costs of recycling. There are countries and business who are at the forefront of the industry, making big strides to improve diversion rates and minimize waste generation in the first place—they are reducing packaging, using more environmentally friendly materials and ensuring that the products they create are recyclable. These countries put environmental sustainability and resource recovery at the front of their agenda and boast a 90 percent diversion rate from the landfill. They also hold large businesses who fail to reduce waste financially accountable for their actions. This is the direction that we can continually work toward and look up to these countries and businesses as leaders who set the example and the standard.