The Northern California Recycling Association (NCRA) appreciates that Fortune’s September 3 article
“The American recycling business is a mess: Can Big Waste fix it?” highlighted the challenges posed to the overall recycling industry by the cyclical global downturn in commodity prices. The article also correctly diagnosed the problems with the prevalent single-stream curbside recycling method. We would like to respond to your statement that “the business of recycling is due for a paradigm shift” by proffering ideas that advocate for just that:
Recycling is Not Free: The value of recyclables does not cover the entire cost to collect recyclables at the curb and separate them at a processing facility. This is especially true now that global markets for recyclable commodities are depressed. However, just because curbside recycling isn’t free, doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. NCRA firmly believes that the benefits of recycling far outweigh the costs, and would encourage customers and communities to keep recycling even when it costs more.
Drop It Off, Take it Back: An alternative to paying hauling companies more to collect and separate recyclables is to develop systems that encourage consumers to separate their own recyclables and transport them to local recycling centers or back to the retail stores where they bought the original products.
More Deposits, More Returns: NCRA supports “bottle bills” and similar legislation that provide consumers with a financial incentive to recycle. Deposit programs can help fund curbside recycling programs and recycling centers and can be applied to many more materials than just bottles and cans.
Beyond Recycling, Zero Waste: Recycling is just one part of the solution. Ultimately we need to strive for Zero Waste. This means designing and managing products and processes to systematically avoid and eliminate the volume and toxicity of waste and materials, conserve and recover all resources, and not burn or bury them.
Re-design, Re-manufacture: As mentioned in your article, one method to improve recyclables commodities markets is to require manufactures to utilize recycled materials in their products. Additionally, Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), which requires manufacturers to take responsibility for recycling their products after use, has to potential to incentivize product redesign resulting in more easily recycled goods.
Organics Landfill Ban: Another strategy is to ban certain materials from disposal, either at the landfill or the curb, and then allow the market to provide alternatives to disposal. Ultimately, all organic materials (food scraps, yard trimmings, paper, wood, etc.) should be banned from disposal in landfills, in order to prevent leaking methane gas into the atmosphere and to return valuable nutrients to the soil in the form of compost and mulch.
NCRA encourages Fortune to publish follow-up articles on recycling and Zero Waste. As you are aware, many Fortune 500 companies have adopted Zero Waste goals and several have made significant progress towards that goal. When researching future articles on recycling, we encourage Fortune not to rely so heavily on “Big Waste” as a source, and to interview other recyclers, Zero Waste companies, and environmental advocates. I would be happy to serve as a contact for future articles and can also provide references to other experts on this topic.
President, Northern California Recycling Association (NCRA)
Our Mission: “Engage with stakeholders to promote, expand, and implement Zero Waste programs and technologies.”