Did you know recycling one glass bottle saves enough energy to power a computer for 30 minutes? And recycling 16 aluminum cans saves the energy equivalent of one gallon of gasoline. A series of small actions like these can turn into great things when they are brought together. And that’s what The Recycling Partnership is all about. The Recycling Partnership is a rapidly growing national nonprofit committed to improving curbside residential recycling and boosting recycling education in cities across America — one community at a time, family by family, bin by bin. They’ve already impacted 33 million households in just four years! As the first brewer to join The Recycling Partnership, HEINEKEN USA stands strong in our belief that recycling is fundamental in protecting and enriching the environment. We chatted with The Recycling Partnership’s CEO Keefe Harrison about the rewarding, challenging, and sometimes beguiling world of recycling.
Today is World Environment Day, an important day for encouraging worldwide awareness and action for the protection of our environment. What role does recycling play?
Recycling is something that everyone can connect to. It’s something they can easily do at home and at work that is a small step in reminding them that they are part of a bigger place — the planet. We look at recycling as the gateway to bigger environmental commitments. It helps citizens understand their role in preserving natural resources, building healthy communities, protecting water, and understanding that they’re all connected together.
Recycling really boils down to common sense — using products to their fullest potential. Why isn’t it as simple as it seems?
The continued evolution of circularity
Hear about the latest progress in advancing a global circular economy from practitioners and experts in a variety of industries — at SB'20 Long Beach.
Yes, why are we still talking about recycling? Didn’t we fix that in the '90s? The truth is only half of Americans are able to recycle at home as easily as they can throw something away. And that’s a problem everywhere. We’re missing out on pockets of populations all across the country. So we look at it with an environmental justice plan and work to make sure everyone has the same opportunities to participate in something that benefits us all. We start by building healthy communities. Then we look at recycling’s role in curbing greenhouse gasses and we actively measure how each increase in recycling reduces our carbon footprint. Then we go further into recycling’s role in protecting waterways and preventing marine debris.
Tell us a little about your partnership with HEINEKEN USA.
HEINEKEN really believes in The Recycling Partnership’s mission to overhaul the U.S. recycling system. With each dollar that moves in, we get to do more good work. We really focus on knowing what our funding partners want out of that. HEINEKEN has been a great partner to us. Why does this matter to them? It’s about their greenhouse gas goals, it’s about their messaging to consumers, it’s about HEINEKEN’s commitment and showing how they walk the walk, not just talk the talk. Our resources help deliver that.
You’ve been at this for a long time. What types of misinformation have you heard from individuals who don’t recycle?
They say, “It’s hard.” It’s not hard. You just have to put it in a different bin. It’s just a different decision. We also hear, “It takes more energy to recycle than to make things from new stuff.” Totally wrong. The truth is that recycling creates a lot of American jobs. But most often, people are just really confused. “I want to recycle but what do I do with my beer caps?” and “What if there’s a label on my bottle, is that okay?” are common questions we get. People put emotion into it and worry that something they do will negate the process. So we spend a lot of time explaining that it’s okay, just go for it. We think about it like keeping molecules in motion. If you’re going to go through the whole process of mining and refining an aluminum can to just use it once and throw it away, you’ve taken a tremendous amount of energy to put those molecules into a tomb. That’s not forward thinking. But the biggest challenge is that recycling feels universal and it feels like it’s been around forever, but it’s not mandated by anyone. There are 20,000 local governments out there, all making their own decisions about how to recycle, what to recycle, how to message, and where to send it. We have an uphill battle as a nonprofit. All we have are good tools, grants, and a sense of persuasion to try and build consistency.
We’ve seen a huge shift in the marketplace with environmentally concerned Millennials consciously supporting companies that use sustainable packaging, recycle/repurpose, and serve their local communities. Does this align with their recycling habits at home?
Younger consumers look at brands as part of their life portfolio, as part of their identity. We see that in their intent, that they want to buy greener stuff, but we don’t always see it in their attempt to recycle. They feel like they are great recyclers, but our data shows that sometimes we’re only getting half. For instance, Denver is a young city, a green city, and a beer-loving city. When we went there to study recycling rates, we found half of Denver’s cans in the trash, not the recycle bin. And these are households that are recycling already! It’s so crazy. So we have a behavior gap between the intent and the act.
How can we fix that?
That’s what we’re working on now. We thought cans would be the most recycled item. Not only are they iconically recyclable, they also have a value on the marketplace, so they have a good portfolio for opportunity. We’ve found that traditional marketing is more effective than social media marketing when it comes to behavior change. Social media helps the cause of “I believe in recycling” but traditional media, like putting something on the recycle bin that says, “Oops! You left a lot of cans in your trash bin!” is the best way to really program people.
There’s also a psychological benefit to recycling: a sense of community-building, a feeling of being a warrior for the environment, and a feel-good energy. How do you utilize this?
We have a communication team that specializes in this and really tries to tap into using the right messaging to connect with people. But the fact is it’s not just one message, it’s over and over again. So how do you keep the interest of people? I think it comes down to the realities of the persona we want and we believe in, matched up with the realities of being really busy. The functional side of it takes over so we always work in a positive light. We never try to harass people into recycling or use guilt trips. We really try to work on reprogramming their behavior.
10 years ago, corporate sustainability departments were practically nonexistent. Thankfully, that’s shifted and now there are even college degrees in numerous sustainability fields. What’s your vision for the next 10 years?
I’ve been working in this field for 20 years. I ran a program at a university. I worked for the state of North Carolina. Then I switched from the government side to the industry side with plastic recyclers and as a consultant for a number of different companies and trade organizations. Now I’ve been in the nonprofit sector for four years. And yes, over the past 10 years we’ve seen a great increase in sustainability, but it’s really only been in the past five years that we’ve seen a collaboration of competitors. HEINEKEN has been one of the biggest voices around the idea that companies need to be fiercely competitive on the shelves but once they’re in the bin, they’re in the bin together and have to solve it together. Of our nearly 40 partners, there are all sorts of levels and layers of competition but they all know they need to work together if they want to create a solution. That gives me a lot of hope that in the next 10 years we’ll see companies setting even bolder sustainability goals and then working together. When it comes to the planet, there is no room for competition.