Kate Bailey would like nothing better than to eventually be bounced out of the sustainability sector.
But until that happens, the chief policy officer at the Association of Plastic Recyclers is going to continue working to improve both recycling and sustainability efforts.
"I take the long-term view that sustainability leaders should have a goal of working ourselves out of a job because sustainability has become so embedded in day-to-day operations that a dedicated role is no longer needed," Bailey said.
Her first job in recycling was, as a college sophomore, collecting recyclables from professors' offices. More than 100 offices each week gave her perspective: "I have always appreciated starting with a hands-on job in the recycling industry."
After graduating with a bachelor's degree in environmental studies and a minor in economics, Bailey spent nearly 20 years at Eco-Cycle, a nonprofit group in Boulder, Colo., that includes recycling and hauling operations aimed at creating zero waste. She held various jobs over time, including policy and research director.
It was that policy work that helped Bailey land her current position at APR.
"For my work now in policy, it is so crucial to understand how the system works and the day-to-day challenges of managing billions of pounds of materials for recycling so we can scale policy solutions based on the realities on the ground of running a recycling business," Bailey said.
That's important work because Bailey believes recycling is a cornerstone to sustainability.
"I have dedicated my career to improving recycling, initially for all materials and more recently focused specifically on plastics. Recycling is the cornerstone of sustainability. There are other critical pieces of the puzzle, but recycling must play a central role, and there remains so much untapped potential to scale U.S. recycling overall and specifically for plastics," she said.
"To me, recycling is never just an environmental solution. Recycling, first and foremost, is a business. It is not a waste management business. It is the business of supplying companies with quality feedstocks for remanufacturing. There's an incredible economic opportunity to strengthen U.S. manufacturing and build the domestic, more resilient supply chain using recycled feedstocks," Bailey said.
The chief policy officer believes that individuals certainly have a part to play in making sustainability work. But there also has to be systems in place to allow people to succeed.
"On a personal level, there are lots of easy tips and tricks to be more sustainable, but I think we tend to focus too much on individual responsibility, especially on social media. For recycling to work well, it first and foremost has to be convenient, so one of the best things we can all do is ask for better recycling — at your school, your gym, hotels, work and everywhere we go. Most often there are a lot of other people wanting the same thing, and it all leads to having a better system in place," she said.
In Bailey's view, the current and growing anti-recycling voice, which is attached to the larger debate of what role plastics should play in society, is a huge issue these days. "Having worked for an MRF [materials recovery facility] operator for more than 15 years, it has been very disheartening to see the growing public distrust around recycling and how the media chooses sensationalized headlines to bash recycling," she said.
"Recycling alone will not solve the climate crisis or the plastic pollution challenges, but it is an essential part of the suite of solutions. We need to do more to improve recycling while also investing in reusable alternatives. It's not 'either-or.' It's 'both-and,' and I believe we'll get there faster by working together," Bailey said.
Bailey believes the expansion of sustainability in the plastics industry will take efforts in many directions.
"Plastics is not one thing, so there is no silver bullet fix to address plastic pollution and waste. Instead, we need a comprehensive suite of tools," she said.
"We need to be honest that recycling is a key part of the solution, but not the only solution, and we need robust public policies at the state and federal levels to grow and sustain plastics recycling. We also need to recognize recycling is a business, not an environmental cause. We need to shift the economics so recycled feedstocks become the primary supply chain for U.S. manufacturing," Bailey said.
Lastly, Bailey said, "the connection to recycling as a climate solution" needs to strengthen.
"Every ton of recycling saves an average of 3 tons of carbon pollution. Better recycling, for plastics and all materials, is one of the easiest, fastest-acting steps we can take today to reduce carbon pollution," she said.
"Too often recycling is seen as a waste solution, not a climate solution. We need to break down those misconceptions and accelerate recycling as a proven solution to both reduce waste and carbon pollution," Bailey said.
Bailey's efforts in plastics and sustainability have included leading bill development and adoption of Colorado's extended producer responsibility rules for packaging policy as well as helping create and pushing for passage of a law establishing a statewide grant fund to improve recycling in Colorado. She also helped create the Alliance of Mission-Based Recyclers, an organization promoting best practices in recycling operations and the role of plastic recycling in reducing plastic pollution, Bailey said.