As many cities brought in 2010 under bursts of confetti made from virgin paper, I wondered what this new decade may have in store for recycling. Are we finally getting waste disposal under control? Although the total number of landfills nationwide has decreased, today's landfills are larger and continue to grow in size. Over the past ten years, the amount of trash being sent to landfills has remained fairly consistent. How have we kept our trash from growing? The answer is, recycling. The amount of trash diverted to recycling continues to increase annually by about 5%. Is it possible to increase this recycling growth rate and actually decrease the amount of trash being sent to landfills?
To give you an idea on how disparate recycling efforts can be across our nation, we only have to take a peek at the recycling rates of a few cities: San Francisco, CA (70%), Houston, TX (3%), New York, NY (34%), and Chicago, IL (15%). What compels one person to deposit a used plastic bottle in a recycle bin while another person dumps a similar plastic bottle into the trash? Recycling behavior seems to be influenced by factors such as: governance, education, economic status, and opportunity for profit.
It is an accepted notion that people with ecological consciousness and beliefs will recycle, so governments and educators spend lots of time and money to inform the public about recycling. Unfortunately, recycling education is often targeted on what is to be done rather than strengthening ecological belief. One study conducted in New York City (where it is the law to recycle) found boroughs with higher incomes tended to have higher recycling rates; could higher income boroughs also have more constituents with higher educations? Creating a habit to recycle by providing incentives appears (at least in the short run) to work better than by raising public consciousness. Even the NYC study found that bottles and cans had a 10% higher recycle rate than paper. Why? The researchers surmised because bottles and cans had a 5¢ cash refund for recycling and paper did not. Sounds like an easy fix here!
In the USA, the financial incentive to recycle was set into motion in 1971 when Oregon passed the first deposit law requiring consumers to pay a deposit on bottles and cans to be redeemed when the product is recycled. Today, eleven states have bottle bills; it is no surprise that states with refundable deposit on beverage containers tend to have higher recycle rates than non-deposit states. Up until last year, California boasted that its 23 year old program was the most successful of them all. Why up until last year? That's when the program's finances went into the dumpster- all the way to the bottom! Like Oregon, the program charges deposits fees to beverage buyers that are reimbursed upon recycling. However, California goes a few steps further, it also charges beverage distributors a per container fee which goes into a state fund and mandates that supermarkets be served by parking-lot recyclers (separate businesses that handle container returns). To top it off, any supermarket that does not accommodate a parking-lot recycler is fined $100 daily by the state or must reimburse recyclers itself. Money, money, money! Over the years, many businesses built up around this lucrative program; at its apex, the overall recycle rate for all beverage containers reached 85% (91% for aluminum cans). So, what happened? In recent years, the redemption rates rose and beverage sales fell, squeezing projected program revenues. However, the declining revenue stream did not stop the administration from using $250 MM dollars from the Bottle Bill Fund to close gaps in the State General Fund and other unrelated programs. Nothing like using recycling to bail out the state! Redemption at its finest!!
Taking recycling incentives to the next level is the company RecycleBank. Launched in 2004, RecycleBank works with municipalities and haulers to offer reward programs to residential customers. Residential participants earn reward points based on the weight of recyclables collected; these rewards are redeemable at retailers like CVS/pharmacy and Target. Imagine you earn points for recycling! Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle has now turned into Recycle, Rack Up, and Redeem! To date, over 20 USA cities and 2 British communities have signed on. According to "The New York Times", RecycleBank charges municipalities (or private haulers, depending on the arrangement) a monetary fee per household, and guarantees clients that they will save at least that much in disposal fees as waste is diverted from landfills and incinerators. The company also receives revenue from recycling plants, depending on how much it increases the amount of materials that are processed. To learn more about the program, visit: RecycleBank.
Giving consumers financial incentives to recycle, does result in increased collection rates. However, by increasing collection rates, we are not necessarily reducing the amount of trash being sent to landfills. It is a well known industry fact that the infrastructure to process and market recyclables has not kept pace with the growth of collection volume. With financial incentive programs sometimes doubling municipal collection rates, the amount of materials collected can exceed the capacity available for processing. To truly operate in a closed loop system, the industry needs more back end infrastructure. Proceeds from financial incentive programs can and should be used to help fund infrastructure development. Building sound closed loop infrastructure will ensure that the reclaimed materials we collect never end up in landfills.
To keep any recycling infrastructure viable, a constant supply of reclaimable materials is needed. Financial incentives for recycling can help to ensure supplies never run out. However, what will happen to collection rates if rewards cease? I am not a fortune teller, but I'd bet the collection rates would decrease. To make recycling an ingrained American habit, financial incentives need to be reinforced with teaching the ecological benefits of recycling. Continual environmental education targeted to schools and communities will help to make recycling more than just a financial transaction; it will help it to become a core American value.
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References for this article were obtained from: "Saving our Earth: Is Recycling the Answer?", Wittman, Dusty, July 24, 2008, "San Francisco Hits 70 Percent City Recycling Rate", www.ems-newswire.com", April 23, 2008, "Houston Resists Recycling, an Independent Streak Is Cited", Ellick, Adam, The New York Times, July 28, 2008, "Recycling in New York City", Alcalay, Morgan, et al, www.nyu.edu, "What's up with blue recycling bins?", Straight Dope Chicago, June 4, 2009, "How to Teach Recycling at an Advanced Phase of Diffusion", The Journal of Environmental Education, Menesses, Gonzalo Diaz, June 22, 2006, "History of Recycling", www.all-recyclingfacts.com, "2002 Report on Post Consumer PET Container Recycling Activity" , National Association of PET Container Resources, Sept. 2003, " Oct 15- Schwarezenegger Retreats on Recycling", Californians Against Waste, www.cawrecycles.org, "Bottle Bills in the USA: California", www.bottlebill.org, "California Recycling Program Is on the Rocks", NACS Daily News, www.nacsonline.com, "Rewarding Recyclers, and Finding Gold in the Garbage", The New York Times, www.nytimes.com, Feb. 21, 2006, "Phoenix Partners with RecycleBank to Reward Residents for Recycling", www.corporaterecyclebank.com, August 18, 2009, "RecycleBank- Making Waste Pay", BBC News, www.bbc.co.uk, Bone, Victoria, July 9, 2008, "RecycleBank Rewards Program Helps Nearly Double Recycling Rate in Northern Virginia", Business Wire, August 5, 2008.