There’s a saying that goes like this: “You haven’t really recycled until you’ve bought recycled products.” This suggests that recycling is only the first step in a broader cycle where re-processing and re-manufacturing also play vital roles. In fact, the universal recycle symbol of “chasing arrows” represents the 3 stages of recycling: collection, processing and market development.
Market development, which includes the design, manufacturing and marketing of products, is required to close the recycling loop and stimulate the underwhelming US recycling rate. In 2008, only 7.1% of the 30.05 million tons of plastic waste in America was recycled. Compare this to the plastics recycling rate of around 70% found in leading countries such as Germany and Japan. The gap between potential and realized recycled materials represents a lucrative opportunity for innovative small and medium sized businesses.
Some states have attempted to jumpstart the stalled recycling economy. California was issuing up to $20 million a year in grants for recycling market development until it encountered budgetary constraints. Similar initiatives have been launched elsewhere, including Ohio, Arizona and Indiana. These grants are intended to develop the local infrastructure to compete in the promising multi-billion dollar global recycling market.
Make no mistake: strong demand for America’s recyclables already exists – overseas. It is estimated that over half of all recycled polyethylene terephthalate (PET, the material found in beverage containers) is exported to China. Once transported, the recycled feedstock is converted into a variety of products ranging from plastic lumber to carpeting to textiles. Many of these value-added consumables are sold back to U.S. buyers at a hefty premium.
In the process, domestic “green-collar” jobs are being squandered. These positions could be filled by American people in local factories operating green machines. The possibilities are illustrated by Blue Mountain Recycling, which is a full-service recycler in Philadelphia that has invested millions in cutting-edge technologies to transform recycled waste into valuable end products. Blue Mountain employs 27 people and processes 10,000 tons of material per month. Green Business Bureau member and California company, Green Project, collects and remanufactures discarded ink and toner cartridges to give them a new life – reducing landfill waste and saving consumers money. Ventures like Blue Mountain and Green Project are both good for the economy and beneficial to the environment. This principle is driving the new generation of American social enterprise.
Consumers can lend their support to stimulating the domestic recycled market. Promising signs have surfaced. A survey conducted by the Natural Marketing Institute found that 81% of Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability consumers (the “green” market segment) completely agree with using products made from recycled materials (compared to 27% for non-LOHAS consumers). A host of small businesses have emerged to heed the consumer call. For example, EcoScraps extends the lifecycle of the estimated 40% of food in America that gets thrown out: the Utah-based startup converts produce waste into sustainable organic compost and other gardening products that are carried at Home Depot.
Environmental Attorney, Douglas P. Wheeler, asserts, “To halt the decline of an ecosystem, it is necessary to think like an ecosystem.” A fragmented recycling system only moves trash around. Putting the “cycle” back into recycling turns trash into cash and promotes a healthier economy, society and planet.
Ashok Kamal is the co-founder & CEO of Bennu, which is the leader in green social media marketing. Ashok coined the term “green gamification” and has worked extensively with FORTUNE 500 clients and startups to develop game-based campaigns that promote sustainability while creating enterprise value. His writings on sustainability are regularly featured on leading websites and Ashok is a frequent public speaker at events such as the White House’s GreenGov Symposium, South by Southwest, GreenBiz Forum, Social Media Week, Gamification Summit and Sustainable Brands.