Recyclers and municipalities see many challenges ahead. Yet a sense of optimism and hopefulness permeated the annual conference of the National Recycling Coalition, held Sept. 21-24 in Pittsburgh.
Most sectors of the recycling industry including plastics are encouraged by increased collections, better technology at materials recovery facilities, a greater recycling consciousness, private and public sector initiatives and a sustainability movement that is triggering more companies to rethink the need to reuse materials.
``Both [high density polyethylene] and PET bottle growth is slowing, but we should see recycling rates going up because collection rates are going up because of all plastics collections,'' said Patty Moore, president of Moore Recycling Associates Inc. in Sonoma, Calif. ``We should see investments in capacity as margins improve.''
Collection rates are increasing for a number of reasons: use of carts instead of containers at curbside, more collection at public venues including outdoor festivals, and greater recycling at colleges. College collection has improved mainly because of the NRC-backed Recyclemania competition, which started 10 years ago with just two schools.
``Recyclemania has spread to more than 400 colleges'' and spurred campuswide recycling as well as football game day recycling, said David Refkin, sustainable development director for New York publisher Time Inc. and NRC board president.
Cities are achieving more success at events as well.
``We identified plastic bottle recycling as the single most important thing we could do'' to improve event recycling, said Rick Meyers, recycling specialist for the city of Milwaukee. ``We changed the type of containers to clear ones and approached the vendors ahead of time.''
The result? The recycled materials collected at its annual two-week Summerfest increased fourfold, and the city collected 260,000 PET bottles, weighing 11 tons, the past two years. ``We chose containers where people can see the contents and with restricted openings on the lid so it doesn't invite trash or look like a trash container,'' said Meyers. ``People don't read. Convenience is what makes things work.'' The stream was 95 percent clean, he said.
Similarly, in Boulder, Colo., only 22 bags of trash were taken to a landfill after the city's annual River Festival that had 22,000 attendees, thanks to the efforts of Eco-Cycle, a Colorado nonprofit group, with offices in Boulder and Longmont, that helps event organizers approach zero waste.
More recycling bins are popping up at public venues as well. In California, a partnership with the American Chemistry Council of Arlington, Va., has placed more than 600 recycling bins on state beaches in the past year.
What's more, NRC's bin grant program begun a year ago in partnership with Coca-Cola Co. to help organizations buy recycling bins is ``oversubscribed,'' said NRC's Refkin.
To date, 151 grants have been awarded, chosen from more than 2,450 applications. The next set of grants is scheduled to be awarded in November. The recipients, to date, include 38 colleges and universities, 40 municipalities and government entities, 24 elementary and high schools and 30 nonprofits.
``Great things are happening on the recycling and compostability front,'' said John Frederick, executive director of nonprofit Public Recycling Officials of Pennsylvania. ``There is a great sense of urgency. But more work needs to be done. We have to take the next step in moving America to a truly sustainable future.''
Indeed, sustainability is pushing more manufacturers to refocus on designing products for reuse and recyclability, which could help recyclers in their quest for more material.
``The recession and the green movement have been the perfect storm for us,'' said Stephanie Barger, executive director of the Earth Resource Foundation in Costa Mesa, Calif. ``We are seeing changes on the consumption side driven by zero-waste initiatives. You do your business a favor by adopting a zero waste strategy. You save money in the long run.''
``We have to look at the world through a different lens,'' said designer, architect and author William McDonough. ``Growth is good, but we have to have a strategy that includes following the laws of nature and grows prosperity instead of destroying our planet.
``We need to design things to go back to the soil or to be biodegradable,'' said the author of Cradle to Cradle whose other concerns are design firm MBDC LLC, architectural firm William McDonough + Partners, and investment firm VantagePoint Venture Partners. ``Cars, computers, TV sets need to be designed to reuse materials. We need to take materials and energy and put them into closed cycles.''
But, even with that optimism, there is some concern as to how the industry takes the next step.
``How are we going to pay for the expansion of recycling in the U.S.?'' asked Ed Skernolis, director of policy and program at NRC. ``We need the transition funds to get from a waste economy to a resource-recovery economy. We have a lot of work to do to enhance recycling in the U.S. I would not be surprised if we see more movement on mandatory curbside and mandatory commercial recycling.''
Some of that is taking place already. Since Jan. 1, for example, all bars, restaurants and hotels in North Carolina have been under a mandate to recycle, with 90 percent of the waste stream estimated to be glass bottles.
Already 10 new businesses have started up to collect those materials, said Scott Mouw, the state's top recycling official. He projects that the mandated collection will capture 33,750 tons of recyclable materials on top of the 52,000 tons collected at curbside.
In Oregon, grocers and distributors are adding water bottles to their collection system, as the state's bottle deposit law expands from just soft drinks starting Jan. 1. The two groups are also partnering to build recycling collector centers that they hope will replace at-store bottle recycling returns.
What's more, producer responsibility is emerging for electronic products, with mandated electronic takeback laws now in 18 states plus New York City.
But, as recycling evolves, more changes will have to take place at materials recovery facilities, matching the ones that have already occurred.
``Optical sorting was rare 4-5 years ago, now it is the standard'' at MRFs and gives us the opportunity to sort out high-valued end products and materials from dirty products, said Steve Dunn, president of the eastern region of Houston-based waste management company, Greenstar North America.
What's needed next, said Moore, is technology to help sort a greater variety of plastic containers, and greater collection at curbside of all containers, not just bottles.
``Every single MRF is collecting them, but very few communities are asking for anything beyond bottles,'' she said. ``End users want them, but there is not any infrastructure in place to get it from bales to where it can be used.
``The market demand is ahead of the changes needed to do that. The technology that is out there is all bottle-oriented. So we need to modify it, but no one wants to invest because no one knows how much [material] is out there.''