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It’s Time to Come to our System Senses 

I just hopped off the stage at Circularity ’22 and a few things stand out to me about this national drive to improve recycling and launch a circular economy.  Clearly people are frustrated that recycling hasn’t fixed the waste problem yet.  But before we jump to recycling’s failings, let’s be sure we haven’t failed recycling.  From my perspective, we’ve been taking steps, when it’s going to take a system.  

The reason it isn’t working at full scale is because we haven’t built it that way…yet. We don’t have a recycling system – we have a cobbled together network.  That is the honest truth. As the CEO of an organization that works hard to fix recycling let me be clear: it is 2022 and 40 million American families still lack access to recycling!   So, step one in a better system – close that access gap.  Make sure people CAN recycle.  

Step two?  Then make sure that people DO recycle.  That means a whole new level of engaging a tired, distracted public, asking them to join us in a journey of change.  As we build a better system and make more things recyclable, we need all of the 9,000 different community recycling programs in the  U.S. to follow that path while we add new programs to reach those that can’t yet participate. That will take a lot of trust, dialog, and a new way of engaging the public.  

Step three, the U.S. infrastructure needs a lift.  That means more recycling carts and trucks but also sortation and reprocessing equipment. It means better drop-off centers in rural areas and universal recycling onsite at urban apartments. There are more than 360 materials recovery facilities (MRFs) in this country, each accepting different items because they are at different stages of maturity and because variable end markets don’t make the job of marketing recyclables easy.  We have the power to fix this.  

As The Recycling Partnership wrote in our Paying it Forward Report: delivering a robust US recycling system has a $17B price tag – but we can get there in 5 years.  Think about that – what would your life be like in five short years if recycling worked at scale?   And the return on that investment? A $30B return over 10 years.  That’s a good investment – one we can’t afford not to make.    

The recent Department of Energy report on plastics lays out the opportunity clearly, “Of the estimated 44 metric tons of plastic waste managed in 2019 domestically, approximately 86% was landfilled, 9% was combusted, and 5% was recycled. Landfilled plastics represented significant losses to the country’s economy in 2019: an average of US$7.2 billion in market value, about 3.4 EJ as embodied energy (equivalent to 12% of energy consumption by the industrial sector).”  The report clearly states that recycling could help keep that value and energy in the system.  

 Again, an investment we (including our planet) can’t afford NOT to make.    

But let’s be clear: this isn’t just a plastics problem.  Every single material needs a recycling boost – be it paper, plastic, glass, or metals. Every material type can play its role in job creation and greenhouse gas reduction.  There’s no one packaging material that enjoys universal recycling. Why?  Because our system isn’t working at full scale, where people CAN and DO recycle.    

The Recycling Partnership spends a lot of time studying how much of household recyclables actually end up in the right bin.  Based on our studies, here’s the rundown of residential recyclables that end up in the dump:  

  • 3 out of 5 cardboard boxes 
  • 7 of 10 glass bottles and jars 
  • Half of aluminum and steel cans 
  • Nearly three quarters of all PET bottles 
  • Two-thirds of all mixed paper
  • And around two-thirds of all HDPE containers like milk and detergent jugs.  

That’s a lot of economic value and  greenhouse gas reduction opportunity that could be realized by a stronger system!  What could help us deliver that system?  Policy.  The State of Colorado gives us a reason for optimism that progress is possible – not just possible but tangible and real. Through the collaborative action of NGOs and brands, the state has passed the nation’s third EPR law. Why is that a big deal? Because access to recycling is the problem in Colorado, where six of the ten largest cities do not provide universal curbside service.  The new law will overhaul the state’s system, bringing thousands of tons of previously landfilled recyclables into the supply chain.  

We built The Recycling Partnership to be an engine of action, bringing data, solutions, and collaboration to this space that so desperately needs it.  I couldn’t be more proud of our team, our community partners, and our funding partners for what we’ve accomplished – diverting 500 million pounds of recyclables from landfills, delivering over a million new recycling carts, avoiding 500,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases, and bringing recycling to towns that would have never been able to prioritize it without us.  We’ll keep that up but expect to see us stepping up our calls for system-wide improvement.   

It’s time. 


Keefe Harrison
CEO, The Recycling Partnership