Recycling – Is it just a business?

This is a question that I’ve been mulling over for the past couple of weeks. Recently I’ve been reading books and articles that suggest that recycling is more of a business than an environmental solution. The articles claim that the majority of the recycling industry is not based on “helping the environment” but is about picking the easiest and largest money making bottles – #1 PET and #2 HDPE beverage bottles.

As I’ve thought about this and talked to recyclers, I’ve come to believe that most recyclers are concerned with the environment. But I also realize that recycling like any business must make money to remain in business. In my opinion recycling is an environmental program that plays an important role in saving scarce resources, reducing pollution, creating jobs, reducing landfill, and educating the general public about environmental issues.

Having said all that, I believe we can and need to do a better job of recycling here in the U.S. Our recycling rate here is less than 27 percent while most European countries recycle 60-70 percent of waste. Those countries are extremely efficient at recycling. I recently heard that the lowly throw away tennis shoe is dismantled for the leather, metal and rubber….nothing goes to waste. Which reminds me of a farmer I knew as a kid….he told me they used everything when they butchered a hog…the only thing they didn’t use was the squeal. The big question is how can we do better? Here are some of my thoughts and I would like to hear what some of your ideas are, and do you think we can do better? Remember, if we can show a profit with your idea, recyclers will be all over what you have to say:

(1) Get the manufacturers more involved. Manufacturers who take responsibility for the products they create will be more inclined to reduce unwanted packaging and design products that are more easily recycled.

(2) Get better advice and innovation from trade groups and organizations. Expect your trade group to do a better job. Not only should they be your advocate, they should be innovators helping your industry and you to improve your recycling business. The status quo isn’t going to be good enough if we want to increase recycle rates, recycle more items and create jobs. If your group isn’t interested in helping you develop new markets…..maybe it’s time to find someone new who will help your business grow and prosper. Unfortunately, it seems that many trade organizations have become too comfortable and aren’t interested in change.

(3) Get involved in the political process. Bottle bill laws are popping up all over the country but many of these bills have been heavily influenced by lobbyists, trade groups and at times uninformed consumer groups. Bottle bills may increase recycling of a particular item but the use of the funds for environmental programs is at times lacking.

These aren’t all the answers to a complex problem but the beginning of a dialog that will, hopefully, get us all thinking about how we can fix environmental problems and improve our environment. Governments are moving toward writing laws that will require manufacturers to practice product stewardship. If that happens, manufacturers will develop their own recycling programs and that will change the way recycling operates.  This could also provide an opportunity for the recycling industry to embrace innovation and to develop programs to bring manufactures and recyclers together.  This would lead to recycling services closing the loop on product stewardship.

By Max