Addressing what’s broken in residential recycling

Addressing what’s broken in residential recycling

Industry leaders share possible solutions for residential recycling’s problems during the plenary session at the Southeast Recycling Conference.

February 27, 2019

“Residential recycling is broken” was a common refrain noted from all the speakers of the plenary session at the Southeast Recycling Conference (SERC), which took place Feb. 24-26 in Orlando, Florida. Three industry leaders opened up the conference during its plenary session, including Chaz Miller, president of Miller & Associates, Bill Caesar, chief executive officer at Houston-based Waste Corporate of America (WCA) and Amy Boyson, community affairs manager at Waste Management.

Miller discussed the problems the U.S. is facing as a result of “wishful thinking” in recycling. With wishful recycling, Miller said there have been “increasing inconsistencies” in the quality of material that ends up in curbside recycling. 

Chaz Miller presents at SERC

All three speakers also noted that the problems in residential recycling today are more “political” than economical as a result of the political conflicts regarding trade between the U.S. and China. Miller reported that there’s nothing wrong with municipal or commercial sustainability programs, but he said many of the goals set are “all based on politics.”

“It’s about someone’s reelection campaign,” he said. “I have nothing against aspirational goals. But we have to be more serious about what we can accomplish. When dealing with local and state officials on recycling goals, they have to be more realistic and accept the fact that some disposal is inevitable. We can’t recycle our way out of materials problems.” 

Caesar noted that changes need to occur in order to sustain recycling programs in the U.S. He suggested three areas where changes need to occur: 

Trash recycling: Caesar reported that one option the industry faces is trashing recycling altogether. Caesar noted that significant portions of recycling are sent to landfill already. He said an average of 20 to 30 percent of recycling is residue. According to Caesar, Republic Services reported that only 35 percent of processed materials have positive commodity value today, mainly metals and old corrugated containers (OCC). 

Fix recycling: Caesar suggested that the waste and recycling industry could also find ways to fix residential recycling, adding that this is a route many in the industry are currently embracing. This would require waste and recycling companies and operations to collaborate on contracts with municipalities, sharing more details on costs and revenues. It also would include investment in alternative separation methods to improve quality of materials in the stream.

Wait for someone else to fix recycling: Caesar said some extended producer responsibility (EPR) programs are already in place in North America, such as the Alliance to End Plastic Waste. “There is a lot of pressure on consumer packaged goods companies that did not exist 10 years ago or even five years ago,” he said. “They are having to react to this. People are seeing signs of how recycling has failed and are telling brand owners like Procter & Gamble that they don’t like what they’re doing. That goes back to [Procter & Gamble’s] investors and it creates a desire to do something.” Caesar added that there are also new approaches to handling packaging, such as Loop’s new circular delivery service, that could change residential recycling. 

“I don’t think status quo is going to continue,” Caesar concluded. “I also think that the industry—most of us here are in waste and recycling and fiber—we no longer control the [recycling] narrative. This is not a problem that just Waste Management or Republic or Waste Connections has. This has gotten much bigger.”

To address problems in residential recycling, Caesar added that all stakeholders need to collaborate on a solution. This includes the waste and recycling operations; municipalities; retailers and packaging companies; environmentalists; environment social governance groups; and paper mills. He stressed that things will remain uncoordinated in residential recycling if there’s not a collective solution from various stakeholders.

“If we don’t do something collectively, we will find different people doing different things in uncoordinated efforts,” he said. “It will be messy. It may advantage some and not others. We need to get around the table and figure out who will pay for what and how to achieve change. Collectively, I think we can get there.”