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The Truth on Recycling 

by Keefe Harrison (she/her/hers) , CEO, The Recycling Partnership

Frustrated that recycling isn’t fixing the world’s waste problem? Here’s the truth: as it’s built now, it never will.  If we think we can just keep making and buying whatever we want without any planning for what happens when we’re done with that thing, recycling will never keep pace and we’ll always be let down. 

However, if we stop, and take on the hard but impactful work of planning and building a better system, one that involves reducing what we make in the first place, reusing more, and recycling all that we can, now that’s a different matter. I believe that if you don’t like something, you should work to change it. That’s what The Recycling Partnership is all about – hands on, hard work to overturn the status quo – driving for a better recycling system and a circular economy.   

I also believe that nonprofits like The Recycling Partnership play a critical role of holding companies accountable and helping them to be part of the solution – it’s a proven concept called “insist and assist” that I outline in my TEDx talk recorded in 2019. It means that with big, hairy global challenges like waste and recycling, the same groups who contribute to the challenge need to be contributors to the solution. We can’t just point fingers or complain, we need to lean in and build solutions, tapping into innovation and resources to deliver meaningful impact, fast. 

And what do we stand to gain? 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.  

So what’s the plan?  How do we fix this? Here are five steps that would make a meaningful difference in the US: 

  1. First, the size of the solution has to match the size of the problem. Our country has been chipping away at recycling improvement for decades.  But if we really want a better system, we need to invest $17B so that everyone can recycle, everyone does recycle, and there’s a better infrastructure. How long would it take to fix it?  5 years. Think about that – we could stop complaining and instead turn our attention to meaningful change. 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.   
  2. Make sure that everyone can recycle. Currently 40 million households don’t have that option. Grants like those we’ve issued in Baltimore, Michigan, and Orlando show just how eager communities are to deliver recycling to their people – but they need help.   
  3. Engage the public about recycling a range of materials.  Let’s be clear: this isn’t just a plastics problem. Every single material needs a recycling boost and every material type can play its role in greenhouse gas reduction.  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, two-thirds of all mixed paper, and two-thirds of all HDPE containers like milk and detergent jugs.  
  4. Now, let’s get honest about what’s on the shelves. If companies continue make products that aren’t designed for the recycling system, they won’t get recycled. Easy as that. But how do we know what it means to be designed for recycling? Here are a few tools:  APR Design Guide, How2Recycle, Plastic IQ, and the Circular Packaging Assessment Tool.   
  5. What role can policy play to help speed up this system change? Pass good policy that holds the value chain responsible for progress. Putting recycling on the backs of stressed local governments is a strategy that has run its course. A different model is fast developing to tie recycling to consumption, which will bring the financing needed for the next leap forward and the incentives to reduce problematic packaging. Does this put some “power” in the hands of corporations? Sure it does. Does it mean they control everything and do the least possible? No. Anyone paying attention to the laws passed in California, Colorado, Maine, and Oregon knows that’s not true. 

Plastics waste is a red-hot issue and I welcome the public debate about what to do. After more than 20 years in the field I’m thrilled that waste and the health of our recycling system is receiving a passionate evaluation. But I challenge us all to stop shy of idealism, and instead look to data, action, and results to guide us. 

The Recycling Partnership is committed to working with all well-intentioned stakeholders to make recycling better, to eliminate problematic packaging, and to build a transparent and accountable system that delivers recycling’s enormous economic and environmental benefits. We can get there with less complaining, and more dialogue and real work.

Join us.