WASHINGTON (May 22, 11:35 a.m. ET) — No one seems quite sure how to improve the collection of plastic household materials for recycling.
But with financial resources limited at the municipal level, there is growing consensus that systemic changes will be needed to push collection — and recycling rates — upward to the levels needed to incorporate large amounts of recycled content into products.
“We've hit a plateau with our current collection system and I'm not sure anyone knows how to get beyond where we are at,” said Patty Moore, president and CEO of Moore Recycling Associates Inc., a research and consulting firm in Sonoma, Calif., that focuses on recovery of post-consumer plastic packaging.
“It is stagnant at best,” agreed Mike Schedler, technical director for the National Association for PET Containers Resources, also in Sonoma. “I don't think we've made any gains in collection.”
At the root of the problem is that reclaimers “rely on city and county systems to run the collection system and to act as suppliers in a global market economy, and they are not equipped to do this,” said Scott Mouw, the top recycling official for the state of North Carolina.
The problem is twofold, he said.
“Cities are constrained in their spending, so where does the investment come from to improve the collection infrastructure” at the household level, let alone at commercial buildings and sports and entertainment venues, said Mouw.
Second, cities typically aren't financially rewarded by the supply-and-demand market because they don't have the equipment or manpower to sort out valuable materials, he said. As a result, material recovery facilities reap that reward.
“Municipalities need to be a little bit more savvy about the agreements they make with the haulers and processors of their material,” said Moore.
Indeed, that lack of financial reward for cities is the heart of the problem, agreed Will Sagar, executive director of the Southeast Recycling Development Council Inc. “Cities represent the point in the value stream where the material has the least value, but also the highest collection and handling costs.”
As a result, “supply from the municipalities to the MRFs is extremely inelastic,” said Sagar, whose organization represents 11 Southeast states and has a mission to unite industry, government and non-government organizations to develop and promote sustainable recycling and to make it cost-effective and efficient.
Local governments are not investing to improve collection systems, largely because of a lack of financial resources and because there is little financial incentive for them, he said.
“If I'm a city and I invest in a local government collection system, the material goes on the market and I only get a little,” said Sagar. “The question is, how do we sweeten that structure so it is equitable and fair, and how do we address that front-line collection quandary.
“Right now, we've got a dysfunctional market on the collection side,” he said. “We're losing a lot of material that way.” He noted, for example, that 70 percent of PET bottles “end up in a landfill.”
“We're losing 70 percent of that material stream and that's the white elephant in the room,” said Sagar. “We have enough material to feed the recycling plants. We are just not getting it captured. We need more enterprise funding for municipal collection.”
The inability to significantly ramp up the collection of material also creates quality problems, suggested Moore.
“Quality and supply are tied together, and a significant amount of material is being lost,” she said. Either material is not being collected, or yields are lower because reclaimers can't enforce bale specifications, according to Moore.
“Demand has been exceeding supply for so many years that the quality standards for bales have dropped and are not enforced,” she said. “Reclaimers have no ability to go back to their suppliers and say the bales are problematic and that impacts their ability to achieve good yields.
“Either we are going to have to have policy changes or significant technology development to get more material out of the stream,” said Moore. “Without that, we can just make incremental changes. Doing the same thing we've been doing is not going to work.”
Mouw agrees: “The collection system for recycled material, as it operates now, can't deliver on the goals of consumer product goods companies or the community. We are slowly but surely increasing the collection of bottles and the collection of materials beyond bottles, but, we are still just making incremental progress.”
That rate of growth won't result in the material recyclers need, he said.
“Even if residential collection bumps up a little bit, it still leaves untouched a whole lot of venues,” he noted. “We have a long mountain to climb to increase and expand the collection system. And if you think about building a collection system for the many points of generation beyond households, it is a very daunting problem.”
There are other obstacles, such as large cities that still don't have curbside collection programs for recycling. In some cities that do, participation rates by consumers are at “unacceptably low levels,” he said.
More cities nationwide have to switch from bins to carts, he said: “Carts re-energize people and boost the amount of material collected by 30-50 percent.”
There is also not enough education to consumers and existing messages often aren't clear enough.
“One of the problems is that the first thing that gets slashed [in a budget pinch] is the education portion” of the recycling program, Mouw said. “And when education slips, you are going to be running an inefficient collection system.
“This is where brand owners and community groups could be helpful — to provide an educational component.” He cited the positive impact the Curbside Value Partnership has had on boosting recycling rates.
Moore stressed that people need clear instructions on what they are supposed to do, and it must be simple for them to do it. “But even when there are recycling bins,” she said, “some just say ‘Please Recycle,' ” without telling people what is recyclable. “We need signs on bins and we need big recycling bins in households,” she said.
Sagar agreed. “We have to create an infrastructure that works for the consumer and too often, there is a trash can, but not a recycling bin next to it. And we have got to come up with something universal and clear and let's do something better than we did with resin identification codes,” which survey after survey has shown confuse consumers.
“Somehow,” Sagar said, “we have to establish that we can't throw away valuable materials.” He pointed to societal efforts used to get people to wear seatbelts and not drink and drive. “We can make a change, but it will require the concerted effort of a lot of parties.”
“Clearly, something has to give,” agreed Moore. “Without changes, we're in this holding pattern.”
The private sector must be the leaders in solving the issues around supply and quality of supply, she said. “You need a leader with the conviction and vision to get something done because it won't happen without leadership. But where that will come from, I don't know.”
Kim Jeffery, president and CEO of Nestlé Waters North America, agreed that public funding is lacking and the private sector must take more responsibility.
“We need to move the needle with policy changes,” he said, “because we don't have the proper infrastructure. We need real systemic change to improve the recycling rates on all materials because the model we're using isn't good enough.”
That is where the private sector has to get involved, he said.
“The funding should be private and [the process should be] managed by the producers,” Jeffery said.