Rising Above The Recycling Decline

 The United States is lagging behind other countries when it comes down to overall recycling efforts. As the world’s largest trash producing country at 1,609 pounds of trash per person, per year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, it raises questions why the land of opportunity isn’t taking advantage of its position to help reduce some of the Earth’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Saving the planet one recycled can at a time isn’t as daunting as it might sound. In fact, if everyone took time out of their day to recycle just one aluminum can, it would save enough energy to run a TV for three hours, or equal a half a gallon of gasoline. The potential energy-saving benefits show that one person (or can) can make a difference because it takes 95 percent less energy to make a can from recycled aluminum, than from raw materials.

The U.S. recycling rate for aluminum beverage cans has reached its highest level in a decade with 58.1 percent (roughly 56 billion) of all cans recycled last year, according to the Aluminum Association, Can Manufacturers Institute (CMI) and Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI). While aluminum recycling is on the rise, widespread adoption is discouragingly low, according to a recent status report from the United Nations Environment Programe.

Recycling involves more than aluminum, as it only accounts for less than two percent of the total U.S. waste stream, according to the EPA, but it is an infinitely recyclable material.

The EPA estimates 66 percent of the materials we trash every day could be recycled. However, only approximately 25 percent is actually being recycled in the U.S.

Robert Lange, director of the New York City Department of Sanitation’s Bureau of Waste Reduction, Reuse and Recycling, insists that the overall challenge recycling and waste management staff face is the inability to change cognitive human behavior.

Lange suggests that change will come in recycling numbers as new technologies emerge and once consumers take responsibility for all products recyclable. Once people realize how much of an impact recycled materials have on the planet, then, the number of recycled items will increase.

Curbside Value Partnership (CVP), a newly independent, non-profit organization, delivers marketing and public relations expertise to organizations that don’t have the capabilities to implement recycling initiatives in-house. They measure what companies do with the money invested in recycling strategies before, during and after initiatives, to net out a meaningful statement of accomplishments.

“We found that over 50 percent of the households in the U.S. have access to some sort of curbside recycling service, but of that percent, only about a half participate,” said Steve Thompson, executive director of CVP. “There’s a lot of folklore that undermines the value of recycling, so we’re trying to dispel some of those misconceptions and let the public know that it really is easy and it does matter.”

CVP partnered with 29 communities in four states and within the first 23, CVP noticed there was an average of 18 percent improvement in participation and 22 percent improvement in tons collected. When the U.S. economy delved into a deep recession in 2008-2009, the results weren’t as lucrative. In Louisiana, all communities experienced an eight percent decrease and in the city of Phoenix there was a three percent decline. CVP correlates the recycling decline with the economic downturn.

“I think it reflects, if the materials aren’t being purchased then they are not available to recycle,” Thompson added. “The people that get hit the worst don’t have the money to buy the cornflakes to recycle the box.”

Some companies stress convenience as the reason why more people don’t recycle, which is why companies like Alcoa and PepsiCo. have formed recycling initiatives with emphasis on consumer recycling convenience.

“Part of what we’ve recognized is that the easier it is for people to recycle, the more likely it is they are going to do it,” said Beth Schmitt, director of recycling for Alcoa. “The underlying message that we’re trying to get out is that cans are not trash. It should bother people when they see cans in a trash bin.”

Alcoa, the world’s third largest producer of aluminum, is making strides in the recycling industry by strategizing its focus on the away from home environment – making recycling more convenient – particularly for younger generations.

“We’re trying to reach new consumers through new channels like social media. We developed the Alluminate app last year,” Schmitt added. “It offers GPS functionality to offer advice on where someone can go to recycle in their area.”

Alcoa has goals that exceed competing recycling initiatives – by 2012, the company has a target rate of recycling 75 percent of all aluminum.

If recycling leaders aren’t experiencing a decline in returns, then some have reached a plateau and are actively creating new initiatives to the crisis with the ultimate goal of getting people excited about helping the planet – some major companies are even offering incentives for recycling efforts.

On Earth Day of 2010, Pepsi Co. implemented their Dream Machine recycling initiative, partnering with Waste Management and Keep America Beautiful. PepsiCo. decided to recreate their traditional recycle bins, although the company still has static bins set up throughout the U.S., they wanted to offer incentives for consumers to recycle. In an effort to increase the number of people that recycle, PepsiCo. created interactive kiosks allowing consumers to earn points toward rewards (thanks to partner Greenopolis), track their recycling contributions and donate to the Entrepreneurship for Veterans Disability Program.

The Dream Machines are in just over 34 states with the best recycling results in less populated areas.

“We set up these innovative recycling acts in small remote locations and that’s where I think you can see the best return,” said Tim Carey, director of sustainability and technology at PepsiCo. “You can pick almost any state, but it’s really that sweet spot where there’s little available to people who want to recycle and don’t have access or people haven’t recycled historically and now hopefully, they’ve got more of a reason to do it.”

PepsiCo. also has lofty recycling goals of targeting 50 percent of all container recycling by 2018.

“Our philosophy is recycle first – everybody should recycle,” Carey said.

Some of the challenges affecting sustainable development involve the continuous stream of disposed products by consumers and their little known awareness about the world’s shrinking resources along with the nation’s current economic hardships.

As companies create new ways for people to recycle in the U.S., the percentage of waste products could potentially decrease.

About the Author

Christina Miralla is the associate content editor for 1105 Media, Inc. She can be reached at cmiralla@1105media.com.