Recycling in America: What’s Missing?
While recycling in the US continues to grow, one only has to look at Europe to appreciate how much further this country needs to go. The breadth of materials that are collected and recycled in Europe, particularly in northern European countries like the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium, significantly exceed what is collected in the US. The collection rates on these materials seem unfathomably high to waste experts in the US. Much of this can be attributed to the general European philosophies and sensibilities towards waste; the small, densely populated countries in much of Europe discourage landfilling, which forces jurisdictions to consider recycling as the first course of action. However, at least some of the differences can be found in a very important attribute: the accessibility of recycling services.
In much of the US, the public must transport waste to a central location, such as a municipal hazardous waste site, to ensure that material is recycled. Other segments of the population collect recyclables at curbside, but this practice is often limited to a handful of standard products, like certain plastics, aluminum cans, newspaper and cardboard.
While there is no universal standard for measuring the impact of accessibility on recycling success, the limited availability of collection sites for most materials certainly deters consumers from embracing recycling practices.
Generally speaking, what constitutes “accessible” collection sites? Several factors should be considered, such as whether a site is open to the public, whether the hours of operation are robust and flexible, and the proximity of sites to the waste generators, namely, the consuming public. Several industries and organizations have attempted to quantify this measure.
According to the National Solid Waste Management Association, 8,659 curbside recyclable collection programs were available in 2008, serving 146 million households, or 50% of the US population. While data regarding drop-off centers—vital to rural communities—is not as recent, in 1997 there were 12,964 operating in the country.
A 2009 recycling survey, prepared independently by R.W. Beck for the American Beverage Association (ABA) measured the impact of accessibility on recycling plastic and glass containers as a way to evaluate materials and collection techniques. The report revealed 74% of the total population, or an estimated 229 million Americans, have access to some form of curbside recycling at home.
A 2012 study conducted by Moore Recycling Associates on behalf of the American Chemistry Council (ACC), looked at the percentage of US population with access to plastic bag recycling and plastic film recycling. Their results show that 91% to 93% of the US population has access to plastic bag recycling and 72% to 74% also have access to plastic film recycling via curbside collection or because they live within 10 miles of a drop-off facility.
At Call2Recycle, which collects consumer batteries throughout North America, we’ve attempted to create a reasonable measure for assessing the accessibility of our collection sites. Looking at the prevailing literature and the recycling behaviors of the American public, the organization aspires to establish a publicly available collection site within 10 miles of 95% of the population of any given area. Currently, the program has publicly accessible collection sites within reach of 91% of the US population. While below our organizational standard, this measurement confirms two things: first, we are already making good progress and secondly, the larger goal is achievable. The no-cost, public collection program is available at more than 30,000 collection locations in the US and is growing so that the standard can be achieved within the next five years.
Compare this with some of the European countries. In Germany, a country with less than one-third the population of the US, a comparable battery collection program has more than 70,000 publicly accessible sites. It’s no coincidence that Germany collects at least twice as many batteries as we collect in the US.
Some suggest that the answer is expanding curbside collection, which is, perhaps, the ultimate in accessibility. Certainly, there is merit in an approach like this but it also has shortcomings. First, there is a safety and liability risk in co-mingling relative benign waste—like newspaper—with a material like a lithium ion battery that can, under certain conditions, trigger a “thermal event.” Second, the greater the breadth of material collected at curbside (or any other location), the more challenging it is to properly sort the material to maximize its residual value in secondary markets. Higher value material can be cost-effectively recycled at curbside; materials that municipal hazardous waste programs must pay to process can create potentially significant cost issues. The curbside collection of mattresses is an example of cost-prohibitive recycling.
Nonetheless, in the end, increasing accessibility of collection sites is critical to any strategy to optimize collections. But it’s not the only strategy – if we build it, the consumer still may not come (with apologies to “Field of Dreams”). Strategies like public education, government advocacy and other measures are also essential to achieve greater results. Yet all the data continues to show that the easier it is to recycle, the more likely it is that it will occur.
Carl E. Smith, President and CEO of Call2Recycle, North America’s first and largest battery stewardship and recycling program. Smith leads the organization in its efforts to help preserve the environment through responsible recycling of batteries. With more than 322 million wireless devices (phones, tablets, and e-readers) in use in the U.S. alone—all powered by rechargeable batteries—recycling both the battery and the device are more important than ever before.
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