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Bipartisan Support for Residential Recycling Drives System Change: Red + Blue = Green

The big “e’s” are on everyone’s minds – the economy, environment, and education. Local, state, and federal policymakers and civic leaders are charged with tackling these big topics to provide the best quality of life for their constituents. There are many approaches to these challenges; but one issue is a kitchen table equalizer regardless of political affiliation: Recycling.  

Yes, that’s right, recycling.  

Recycling is an American issue, regardless of political affiliation, that demonstrates how boots-on-the-ground collaboration achieves tangible results to help not only improve the environment by reducing waste in the landfill and conserving natural resources, but also support the economy through jobs, and by providing feedstock for manufacturing. A successful recycling program depends on multiple stakeholders coming together to work toward a greater good – a vibrant, clean, and healthy community.  The Recycling Partnership (The Partnership)  is committed to assisting communities to advance recycling through public policy, program implementation, and improvements. Across states, the goal is to provide a strong, efficient, widely available recycling system as a public service for constituents. 

“When we look at environmental system change, we must look at one of the greatest incubators of change: government,” said Craig Wittig, Senior Director for Grant Implementation and Community Engagement with The Recycling Partnership. “Innovation in residential recycling depends on public-private investment and coalition building with local and state government leaders so it can be a lever of change for the entire system. We at The Recycling Partnership are proud to work across thousands of communities and engage multiple stakeholders to achieve the dream of a sustainable environment for our children and grandchildren.”  

Since 2014, The Partnership has supported more than one-third of the nation’s community recycling programs and reached over 100 million households. The U.S. residential recycling system is unique; it’s a system made up of 9,000 individual, local programs that have varying needs, goals, and face challenges such as competition for public resources and lack of access to effective outreach materials. Unaddressed, these challenges can be overwhelming for state and local governments, but the public-private investment can be a game-changer. The Partnership has a proven track record of leading this work, coordinating multiple projects to improve recycling and make life just a little bit easier for people nationwide. The case studies below showcase some of the successes and resiliency of states and local governments. 

Ensuring Equity for Public Services 

Cited in The Partnership’s State of Curbside Recycling in 2020 report, 84% of Americans view recycling as a valuable public service. The Partnership’s inaugural Recycling Confidence Index also notes that 80% of people support recycling. That’s more than the number of people who like the all-American pastime of baseball. Even though it’s viewed positively, 4 in 10 American households cannot recycle cans, bottles, and paper as easily as they can throw something away.  That means some areas just don’t have recycling at all, or live in buildings that were designed without a space for a recycling container, or some neighborhoods in a given community aren’t offered recycling collection service. It also means that some states are working to address that challenge. 

The state of Michigan is laser-focused on environmental action, supporting projects in a variety of communities statewide to improve its overall recycling rate to 30% by 2025. In Holland, Michigan, a city with a population of around 34,000, The Partnership worked with Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) and local leaders to move an opt-in recycling program that used yellow bags to collect recycling to a universal recycling program with carts. With opt-in programs, residents must take the initiative to figure out how they can participate in recycling, which can lead to inconsistent and inequitable service. Holland’s shift provided every single-family household (about 9,500 households) with 96-gallon recycling carts. In one year since the universal carts were implemented, the community reported a collection of more than 3 million pounds of recyclables, an increase of more than 1,300 tons per year over the opt-in system. This partnership not only helped residents of Holland but helped EGLE work towards its goal of boosting the state’s recycling rate and adds to the overall economic impact of recycling, which, according to recent data from the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, the economic impact of the recycling industry in Michigan is more than $3.4 billion.

Improving a community’s recycling technology also presents an opportunity to close gaps in recycling access. Once material is collected from a curbside cart or drop-off location, it is taken to a materials recovery facility (or MRF) for sorting and processing. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, a lithium-ion battery mistakenly put in the recycling stream started a fire that took down one of these facilities, leaving 250,000 households in the Tulsa region without a facility to process its recyclables. This was particularly disappointing as residents of Broken Arrow, a neighboring city, had just received curbside carts with help from The Partnership to launch a recycling program. Working with local leaders and partners, a Partnership grant project supported the rebuilding of the MRF with new technology like robotic and optical sorters to maximize the recovery of materials, such as polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic, which is used to make water and soda bottles. Now reopened in 2022, this new technology helps create an expanded and more effective processing capacity that will lead to the recovery of 466 new tons of recyclable material annually, as compared with the older facility.  

Constituent Feedback, Engagement, and Action 

An individual household generates an average of 757 pounds of recyclable material per year. And keeping those recyclable materials out of the landfill can save on waste disposal costs, reduce the amount of waste in the landfill, and ensure needed recyclable materials are actually recycled, turning the material into a resource for the economy.  Investing in recycling presents long-term economic and environmental opportunities for communities and local governments.  

Recycling improvement projects often begin with two core questions: “Can people recycle?” and “Do they recycle?” In Peoria, Arizona, city staff proactively reached out to residents to gain insight on its waste and recycling program. According to the city, residents shared that the colors of the recycling and waste carts were too similar, creating confusion about where to toss items. As a result, there was a high contamination rate – i.e., a high number of unrecyclable items in the recycling cart, like plastic bags or food waste, mixed in with recyclable items. These inappropriate items can raise program costs, clog machinery and cause other problems at recycling processing facilities. The proposed solution? Changing the color of the recycling cart lid and adding an educational message. In the spirit of meeting communities where they are, The Partnership provided funding and technical assistance for the Blue-Lid Project, a pilot to test the new recycling cart lids and education strategies and catalogue behavior changes. 

The pilot study looked at different education strategies for about 4,000 households in Peoria and found that those that received a new blue lid on their recycling cart, information packet, and cart inspections with The Partnership’s recycling quality improvement program Feet on the Street had the biggest improvement when compared with other strategies. Just like good bipartisan policy requires collaboration, The Partnership has a unique expertise in facilitating partnerships and meeting communities where they are to meet their recycling goals.  

Working Together across Party Lines for Our Future 

Recycling should be as easy as throwing something away. But for everybody it’s not. That’s why it is so critical to meet communities where they are in this work — Holland, Michigan is different than Tulsa, Oklahoma which is different than Peoria, Arizona. But what connects everyone from small and rural towns to big cities is the opportunity to make recycling easy and convenient for every neighborhood and every household, everywhere. Through partnership and investment, these initiatives can be implemented in any community.  

Together, system change is possible. 

Are you interested in addressing recycling access through programming improvement or policy in your community? Reach out to The Recycling Partnership.