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Expanding recycling will require a local approach

By: Mike Verespej

September 27, 2012

AUSTIN, TEXAS (Sept. 27, 11:50 a.m. ET) — Future increases in recycling materials will come from local and state initiatives, possibly in the form of extended producer responsibility (EPR) initiatives — and not from nationwide endeavors.

And for recycling to grow by leaps and bounds, the different groups involved in recycling will need to cooperate more and look at recycling in a different light.

“The next 15 percentage point increase in recycling will come less from national initiatives, and more from local and state endeavors,” said Matt McKenna, president and CEO of Keep America Beautiful. “Policy at the federal level has receded as a driver of recycling. But there will be increasing pressure at the state and local level for EPR for specific products.”

“Voluntary or mandated EPR will be on the agenda in several states for years to come because global demand for products won’t change and the participation rates for recycling are not what they should be,” McKenna said at the recent Resource Recycling conference in Austin.

McKenna said KAB will kick off its second national public service campaign to build awareness of the need to recycle in the second or third quarter of 2013.

To increase the amount of people that recycle materials and to increase the amount of materials recycled, it is also critical that all groups interested in advancing recycling cooperate.

“There are a lot of groups that have the common goal of reducing waste and increasing recycling rates,” McKenna said. “We must learn not only to talk to each other, but to talk to people with different viewpoints. We have to build that bridge to increase the recycling rate in America today.”

Mark Lichtenstein, president of the National Recycling Coalition, agreed.

“We are all trying to figure out a different way to do environmental sustainability in this country,” Lichtenstein said. “We have to look at unique financial mechanisms, public-private partnerships and how non-government organizations play a role in this.”

In addition, he said, industry, government, associations and NGOs “have to learn what we need to do differently to educate people.”

“Our approaches to education are not working as effectively as they should,” Lichtenstein said. “We need to find out what we need to do differently to affect consumer behavior.”

But increasing recycling is more than just a matter of greater cooperation and better education, said David Allaway, senior policy analyst in the solid waste program of the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality

Achieving more recycling and motivating more consumers to recycle will require that individuals involved in recycling look at sustainable material management in a new way.

“If we’re going to get deep reductions in environmental impact, we have to have strategies that go beyond recycling,” Allaway said. “We have to understand recycling is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

“And we need to understand that the economic and environmental value of recycling is upstream,” he said. “It is providing industry with feedstocks to replace virgin material and reducing energy use. If we can’t do that, we’re a failure.”

To achieve that, Allaway said everyone involved in recycling needs to understand that “we have to do more than manage the discards. We need to understand under what conditions does recycling serve as a cul-de-sac and under what conditions does it move us forward on the road to sustainability.”

He said there is a need to come up with strategies that can alleviate the environmental impact of materials.

“We are never going to be doing sustainability management properly if we continue to organize around landfill avoidance. We have to stop promoting recycling as landfill avoidance,” Allaway said.

“We have to look at the full impact of materials and every unit of energy used across the entire life cycle to determine actions that can be taken across the entire process,” said Allaway.

“We need to focus on the market side, not the collection,” he added. “If we reorganize recycling around that, we wouldn’t have this problem around recycling.”

“We need more recycling,” said Allaway. “But more importantly, we need better recycling. We need recycling to embrace more than it has in the past. We need it to embrace reuse, prevention, sustainable sourcing and sustainable consumption.”