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Where Does Recycling Fit in the Environmental Movement?

According to a recent Nielsen survey, respondents believe that their biggest contribution to the preservation of the environment is recycling. Plastic bottles, followed by paper and cardboard, are the two most frequently cited materials consumers say they recycle. But without overt leadership on the issue, our limited success in recycling may have peaked.

We may have reached a tipping point for the recycling movement, especially in the U.S. While most consumers believe in the importance of recycling to protect the environment, the confluence of several trends are putting recycling at odds with the progress of the environmental movement. These trends include:

– A slowdown of construction in China that has slowed the demand for commodities, causing prices for underlying raw materials including nickel, steel, copper, cobalt and related materials to soften. Many of these materials are priced at the lowest levels in years. The decline in commodity prices makes many recycling activities, particularly those involving metals, unprofitable. This, in turn, drives up prices to process products and pushes some processors out of the market altogether.

– Fewer recycling mandates in the U.S. While governments in Europe and Canada have embraced the concept of zero waste and extol the virtues of a circular economy as a way to better manage waste, the U.S. has not jumped on this bandwagon. Recycling within the U.S. focuses primarily on potentially hazardous material (such as lead) and products where recycling yields a favorable financial result. The political environment is running counter to a zero-waste mentality. With the exception of aluminum cans, few recycled materials have yielded a financially stable business model that fosters continued investment.

– A swing toward climate-change skeptics that reject mainstream scientific opinion on climate change. In direct contradiction to the dominant scientific opinion that human activity is a primary driver of climate change, this group is hindering efforts to protect the environment through recycling and other measures. These skeptics have a rising voice in the current U.S. presidential administration, which is causing uncertainty about the future direction of the environmental movement.

The rise of these economic and regulatory trends–the cratering of the commodities market, a lack of momentum in zero-waste initiatives and the growing influence of climate change naysayers–has put the brakes on the environmental movement within the U.S. A successful recycling initiative requires us to think beyond short-term financial gain to longer term benefits to the economy and environment. Current market uncertainty is bankrupting the many legitimate attempts to create markets for materials from recycled products.

The next few years pose a considerable challenge for the recycling industry. How do we reconcile the overwhelming recognition that we should recycle with the waning public policy and economic markets to support it? As an industry, can we counteract this wave of uncertainty and continue to progress? Only time will tell.

Carl Smith is CEO and president of Call2Recycle, Inc., North America’s first and largest consumer battery stewardship and recycling organization. Smith is a noted speaker and author on sustainability and product stewardship issues.

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