Monday, August 24, 2015

The Recycling Conundrum

A respected colleague and dear friend sent me an article "A greener nation puts recyclers, cities in the red" (also named "American recycling is stalled").

I needed six weeks to prepare to read the assumed bad news.

I was afraid to find out that a gateway practice to environmental sustainability was in anyway diminished by this news. Phew - it was not dismissed by what I read, but it was challenged. 

So I learned, and was reminded that learning, and learning more, is what matters most in this race to green ourselves thoughtfully and effectively. 

The bad news
  • "A storm of falling oil prices, a strong dollar and a weakened economy in China have sent prices for American recyclables plummeting worldwide."
  • Bigger blue curbside bins have encouraged "experimentation", meaning all rubber, plastic and metal end up inside in case they're recyclable (which clogs and contaminates), and discouraged users from breaking down cardboard boxes, and enable full box dumping even with packing materials left inside - more contamination.
  • There is "a three-year trend of shrinking profits and rising costs for U.S. municipalities -- and little evidence that they are a blip."
The good news is
  • Increased processing for comparable volume produced is partially due to reduced amounts of tin and plastic used to create each container. Recycling is harder, but consumption per item is reduced. The goal has always been to Reduce before Reusing and before Recycling.
  • Cardboard (if we take out the packing materials and reuse them) and paperboard recycling is increasing significantly; its value is decreasing but not as much as with other streams.
So what did I learn?
  • There are leaders in the industry really researching the problem, not simply abandoning the waste.
  • That packaging providers have been adapting design to address sustainability issues - great!, but haven't done so in concert with recyclers - sheesh!
  • That the American public is participating in recycling, though inelegantly. Excellent education is important. It should be a co-project of packaging producers, recyclers, and environmental communication specialists. What a great museum exhibit that would be - the history and results of recycling in the US. You could discuss, chemistry, physics, design, advertising, trade, government regulations and incentives, business history, economics.....
Working in an evolving field, such as waste management, or an emerging one, such as environmental sustainability in museums, requires daily jumps into the unknown. Doing it with eyes wide open is the only way to make progress.

Please don't assume recycling problems mean we should stop recycling. We need to keep working the system, and with a goal of substantial waste reduction. Recycling is one tool: not the only tool, and not the best.  

Remember - perfect is the enemy of good.

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