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Furthering Equity in Recycling through Partnership and Practice

Recycling unlocks our potential to improve the planet and creates economic opportunity, but it only works when we can all make a difference. Here’s the thing: Depending on where you live, access to recycling is not equitable. For example, it’s more difficult to recycle if you live in a multifamily residence, like an apartment. These injustices are further troubling; BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) populations are two times more likely to live in multifamily housing than white populations, and about 3 out of every 5 multifamily households lack adequate access to recycling.

To solve for circularity and fully unlock the environmental and economic benefits of recycling and a circular economy, everyone needs access to the resources and tools to participate effectively. The Recycling Partnership is a trusted partner for communities and stakeholders on that path to transformation, advancing equity and inclusion in all facets of work. A nonprofit environmental leader, The Recycling Partnership has improved underperforming recycling programs, partnered with companies on more recyclable packaging, and collaborated with government on policies designed to address these systemic needs.

As cited in The Recycling Partnership’s forward-thinking roadmap Paying It Forward, a $17 billion investment is needed over five years to improve the U.S. recycling system. Of that total, $4 billion is earmarked for delivering equitable recycling access to every U.S. household, with an additional $1.2 billion per year dedicated to education and outreach. Knowing what to recycle — and how — should be as easy as tossing something in the trash can, but practices can vary by city, town, and even neighborhood. In Orlando, Florida, recycling inequities are clear:

  • About half of city residents live in multifamily housing, which is the umbrella term for apartments, town homes, condos, or high-rise residential buildings.
  • Going further, Orlando has significant African American, Hispanic, and Creole communities, many of whom live in the city’s multifamily residential units.

In Orlando, this means that prior to targeted multifamily recycling programming, about half of the city did not have recycling available at their homes.

Teamwork through Partnership Makes Systemic Change

Orlando, Florida is the quintessential example of how The Recycling Partnership collaborates with municipal governments committed to advancing equitable recycling. Orlando’s commitment to environmental equity and justice is two-pronged; first, guaranteeing that recycling services are offered as easily as trash services and second, ensuring that everyone knows how and what to recycle. In 2019, local government passed a universal recycling ordinance, requiring recycling programs at the city’s multifamily residential units and every commercial property. This policy paved the way for recycling progress in Orlando’s multifamily properties.

During the initial phase of the program, and through an initial $150,000 grant, the community and The Recycling Partnership accomplished three major milestones:

  • Hired a full-time city of Orlando employee to serve as the Multifamily Recycling Project Manager.
  • Developed effective, accessible educational tools.
  • Conducted an in-depth audit on the quality and effectiveness of recycling services.

In just one year, Orlando added recycling services to 21,491 multifamily units. More than 4,500 hard sided, plastic six-gallon bins were distributed to units to encourage drop-off in a multifamily common area or recycling cart in a parking lot.  As a result of the new recycling access and capacity, 2.2 million new pounds of recyclable material were diverted from the landfill – and that amount will keep diverting annually. Going even further, at properties with expanded access to recycling, contamination (items not able to be recycled like food waste or plastic bags mixed in with clean, recyclable materials) at two of three properties also decreased during this project. These are important gains.

Advancing Equity

The Recycling Partnership’s work on the ground in communities like Orlando shows how to utilize the tenets of access, education, and infrastructure to address major equity challenges outlined in Paying It Forward:

  • 2 out of 5 U.S. residents (40%) cannot easily recycle at home
  • Multifamily housing is categorically underserved

It should not be a privilege to help make the world a better place. Embracing that vision, in February 2022 The Recycling Partnership officially launched The Recycling Inclusion Fund, a funding stream that aims to address racial disparities and systemic challenges in the U.S. waste and recycling industries. This work will allow The Recycling Partnership to collaborate with more communities and prioritize recycling for all. Future work in Orlando, funded in part through The Recycling Inclusion Fund, will expand the availability of culturally appropriate education and outreach.

Expanded recycling icon

Expanded recycling access to 21,491 multifamily residential units

Diverted pounds icon

Diverted 2.2 million new pounds of recyclable material from the landfill

Reduced contamination icon

Reduced recycling contamination at 2 out of 3 residential properties that expanded recycling

This is what we mean when we talk about Solving for Circularity and ensuring equitable access to recycling for all U.S. residents. Driven by passionate leaders, data, and innovative solutions, we can truly begin to transform the U.S. residential recycling system. Since 2014, The Recycling Partnership diverted more than 500 million pounds of new recyclables from landfills, saved 968 million gallons of water, avoided more than 500,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases and significantly reduced contamination of the recycling stream (making sure those plastic bags are not in the recycling cart!). Won’t you join us? Let’s make change, together.

Members of the BIPOC community icon

Members of the BIPOC community are two times as likely to live in multifamily housing

7 in 10 residents icon

7 in 10 residents who live in a multifamily property or rural community lack equitable recycling access

30% icon

Only 30-40% of multifamily units have access to recycling in the U.S.

To learn how to support The Recycling Inclusion Fund or other opportunities to catalyze system change, reach out to Development Director Chris Coady at ccoady@recyclingpartnership.org.