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Blog: Moving at the Speed of Partnership

By Keefe Harrison

(previously posted by Keefe on LinkedIn)

My Recycling Partnership team has a term to describe units of time in the world of our company – it’s “Partnership Years” – sort of like “Dog Years” I suppose, only better, in that a lot of work and progress gets packed into a really short period of time.

Nothing describes that phrase better than the lightning speed with which our Polypropylene Recycling Coalition has begun to address the decline of polypropylene recycling access in mere months.

In mid-January of this insane year, part of my team was hosting a two-day session in D.C. with the Paper and Metals industries to explore recycling challenges. Meanwhile, down the street, our then-newest team member Ali Blandina was also leading a call-to-action with about 20 companies concerned about the fate of polypropylene – a versatile, recyclable, marketable packaging material, but one that’s been trapped in the mixed-plastics mire that has led scores of communities to drop it from recycling programs in recent years.

Later that month, as our team traveled back from a strategy meeting (TRAVEL! Remember that?), we learned that the Sustainable Packaging Coalition’s How2Recycle initiative had removed polypropylene’s “widely recycled” product labeling status, potentially affecting labeling, package design, and marketing for trillions of dollars of packaged goods in the U.S.

You might say that was the “this just got real” moment for the industry.

Our response? The Recycling Partnership doubled down on coalition recruitment. We developed a plan to reverse this trajectory. We raised a few million dollars. We set our $35 million five-year target. And, that was in the late-first and second quarters of 2020, amidst a global pandemic, a shutdown of the economy, suspended travel, and my team and our corporate partners all working from home, as most of us also experimented with home-schooling our kids.

Nevertheless, on July 8, The Recycling Partnership formally launched the Polypropylene Recycling Coalition, with founding steering committee members Braskem, Keurig Dr Pepper, and the Walmart Foundation and other members of the polypropylene value chain, and outlined a roadmap for executing surgical strikes of carefully deployed and targeted capital grants. Our grants are aimed at Materials Recovery Facilities (MRFs) willing to support our theory of system change, and to restore community access to recycling this important material. The Recycling Partnership’s successful granting model, leveraging private and philanthropic dollars to unlock public funds driving meaningful, measurable change, is after all, our calling card. It makes us unique among non-governmental non-profit organizations (or for that matter, for-profit organizations) working in the circular economy space. The model we’ve used over the last six years to provide equal access to U.S. residents without convenient recycling access is now being used to address a different problem in another part of the system, by providing robotics and optical sortation equipment to positively recover polypropylene. We’re uniquely built for this. With our bias towards action, we know how to deploy grants where we can drive the biggest, fastest system change. And above all, we know and understand the system itself.

And the beauty of our granting approach is SPEED, which our corporate partners know is of measurable value, from an ROI standpoint. We mobilized funding, mapped the game plan, issued RFPs by mid-third quarter, and THIS MONTH, we’ll be awarding grants that will deliver 1.7% of polypropylene recycling access points to the U.S. Recycling System to nearly 4 million people. We’re on the first stretch of a long road to addressing this challenge together, but we’re moving at the speed of The Partnership with a system approach leveraging smart, targeted grant funding where it’s needed most.

People Call-to-action to launching to measurable results in 10 months! That’s less than one Partnership Year when you think about it. If you’d like to learn more about our model, our work, our progress, our phenomenal people, and our ROI to funders, drop me a note. We want you at the table. We need you at the table. It takes the entire system working together to create a circular economy for valuable materials being wasted, for communities struggling under the pressures wrought by COVID-19, and for the planet that we share.

Keefe Harrison is the CEO of The Recycling Partnership, a 501C3 that that leverages corporate partner funding to transform recycling for good in states, cities, and communities nationwide. As the leading organization in the country that engages the full recycling supply chain from the corporations that manufacture products and packaging to local governments charged with recycling to industry end markets, haulers, material recovery facilities, and converters, The Recycling Partnership positively impacts recycling at every step in the process. Since 2014, we diverted 230 million pounds of new recyclables from landfills, saved 465 million gallons of water, avoided more than 250,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases, and drove significant reductions in targeted contamination rates. Learn more at recyclingpartnership.org