In celebration of Earth Month (shouldn’t every month be Earth Month?), our nonprofit organization Recycle Across America (RAA) hosted an exciting pair of events to discuss the faltering recycling industry and a simple solution that can help begin to make recycling fiscally viable and help it begin to thrive.
Before we talk about the Earth Month events and RAA’s society-wide standardized labeling system for recycling bins, let’s briefly discuss the challenges facing the recycling industry and the ominous signs that suggest we need serious solutions, and fast.
Recycling in the U.S. is starting to collapse - and it’s entirely avoidable.
There’s a bit of a placebo effect with recycling in society today and it’s been there for decades. We see recycling trucks drive up and down the roads; we see recycling bins at work, at the end of driveways in neighborhoods and in many public spaces; and we see the infamous chasing arrows on most packaging these days. With all of those indicators, that must mean that recycling is working well and off the to-do list. But the reality is that recycling in the U.S. is not working well at all. Over the last six months, the largest recycling company in the U.S. shut down 25 percent of its processing facilities. In one of the most progressive states in the U.S., California, 250 recycling plants have closed since February.
Adding to the problem is a widely believed misconception that the U.S. recycling industry is not competitive as a result of low virgin-commodity pricing (notably the price of oil) and by the trends toward mixed recycling systems. Those reasons are certainly factors, but please don’t get too lost in the discussion about oil prices and the mixed recycling trend being the cause of the collapse. I assure you, although they are affecting recycling, those issues are not the cause of recycling’s demise. In fact, the actual cause is completely avoidable.
The real culprit is actually the dysfunctional way recycling is implemented and presented to the public. Every day, there are literally millions of tons of garbage (contamination) thrown into recycling bins due to a lack of standardized messaging for the public and from inconsistent and ineffective labeling on recycling bins throughout the U.S. From public confusion at the bin comes mistakes, apathy and skepticism, which result in the costly contamination (aka garbage) thrown in recycling bins, which makes the cost of cleaning out the garbage from the recycling stream cost prohibitive, and makes it financially impossible for recycled commodities to compete with virgin commodities when the latter’s prices are low. Furthermore, contamination in recycling bins prevents many manufacturers from being able to use the recycled commodities.
If we begin to make it easy for people to recycle properly, wherever they might be, the economics of recycling will dramatically improve, as will the quality and quantity of the materials, making them more desirable by manufacturers. In turn, this will allow recycling to weather the normal fluctuations of virgin commodity pricing.
All of the ingredients are in place for recycling and closed-loop manufacturing to be an environmental and economic success story, if we begin removing the confusion at the bin for the public (aka the miners of these valuable commodities). It’s truly that simple.
Why Standardized Labels?
Every industry that we rely on today - including medicine, nutrition, road safety, air travel, technology etc. - has benefited from simple standardizations that have made it easier for people to function properly and efficiently, resulting in dramatically improved economics for the related industry, and even allowing new industries to be born.
It is absolutely critical that we begin applying the same logic to recycling. With an exponentially increasing human population and finite natural resources, it’s bad math to continue as we have been thus far. And as a country that generates more waste than any other country in the world (despite only representing 5 percent of the global population), we have the ability – and the responsibility - to be the leaders in this cause.
RAA’s nonprofit standardized labeling solution for recycling bins eliminates the confusion, increases recycling levels between 50-100 percent, and significantly reduces the amount of garbage that typically contaminates the recycling process. Feeding two birds with one seed, increasing recycling rates dramatically reduces the contamination that is preventing recycled commodities from being profitable and thriving.
The Brand Solutions Summit
At RAA’s Brand Solutions Summit on Earth Day 2016, we brought together representatives from organizations including Walt Disney World Hotels and Resorts, Whole Foods Market, Bank of America, Subaru, TerraCycle, Participant Media, Pivot, Amazon, 1% for the Planetand many others, to discuss how to unite to begin to reverse the current trajectory of recycling and how to begin implementing standardized labeling solutions.
Kathy Loftus, Global Leader of Sustainable Facilities for Whole Foods Market, and a champion for standardized recycling labels, discussed how she is rolling the system out across Whole Foods Market locations across Florida. And TerraCycle CEO Tom Szaky discussed how his company works with RAA to drive awareness via their Pivot TV show, “Human Resources.” Other examples were provided by Disney and Bank of America on how they’ve drastically increased their recycling infrastructure via RAA’s simple, low-cost standardized labeling.
Finally, RAA announced that Rhode Island is officially the very first U.S. state to begin rolling out the standardized labels statewide, making it easier for people to begin to recycle right wherever they are.
Let’s Pose for Progress Party
The summit gave way to a start-studded party and live PSA event at Milk Studios in Hollywood, where we conducted the world’s first live-stream photo shoot onto digital billboards across the U.S. – courtesy of Lamar Advertising – featuring some remarkable celebrities that are donating their time and influence to the “Let’s recycle right!” awareness campaign.
In addition to existing celebrities in the campaign such as Kristen Bell, Ian Somerhalder and Bill Maher, the live-stream photo event included great talent and influencers such as Johnny Galecki (from “The Big Bang Theory”), Maggie Q (“Nikita”), Angie Harmon (“Rizzoli and Isles”), Elvis Nolasco (“American Crime”), Jeremy Piven (“Entourage”), and many more. Celebrity photographer Timothy White photographed the celebrities with recycled materials and recycling bins.
The party and photo shoot had a truly fun, exciting and hopeful vibe - in addition to a strong sense of purpose, unity and urgency to help re-introduce recycling to the American public.
Together, with the partnership of major brands, the need for more quality materials for manufacturers, the support of celebrities and a public clamoring for a way to make recycling easier to do properly, we can save recycling. I hope you’ll join us. In honor of the campaign and the need to make recycling thrive, “let’s recycle right!” and let’s implement common-sense solutions that make it easier for the public to act on their great intentions.