One Man's Trash:
New Technologies, Partnerships Boosting Recycling Around the World

Among the key challenges to the burgeoning recycling market are lack of infrastructure, innovation at scale and funding. But a variety of initiatives — in developed and developing areas alike — are attempting to secure these factors to help spur the development of circular economic infrastructure.

In Argentina, a new generation of trash pickers is helping to refine recycling at the street level. Buenos Aires has invested in recycling through the city government’s Ciudad Verde (Green City) plan and now more than 5,000 litter pickers (known locally as cartoneros) collect a base salary for emptying the city’s bell-shaped recycling bins.

“The first big change came in 2002 when Buenos Aires withdrew a long-standing law that made litter picking illegal,” Santiago Sorroche, anthropologist at the University of Buenos Aires, recently told The Guardian. “The second came with the Zero Garbage law [in 2005], which aims to gradually reduce the solid waste going to landfill.”

Sergio Sánchez, president of the Argentine Federation of Litter Pickers and Recyclers, struck a deal with city officials so registered litter pickers receive a monthly salary of $383 to empty recycling bins, in addition to a minimal social security package and a small pension.

“The big difference today is that we’re treated as workers providing a public service for the city,” Sánchez told The Guardian. “Before, people would look down on us and say we created a mess, plus the police would always hassle us.”

In Brazil, New Hope Ecotech is a technology solution company that offers a digital platform to connect manufacturers with waste pickers via trade-able environmental securities (similar to carbon credits, but for recyclables). Refining a process from street collection to reinvestment is innovation at scale.

In 2015, New Hope Ecotech says it impacted more than 1,000 actors in the recycling chain, tracked over 3,600 tons of recycled material and issued roughly US$500,000 in certificates, sharing the value back to the recycling actors. The company, therefore, not only solves manufacturers’ recycling obligations, it also increases overall recycling rates and generates additional income for waste pickers.

Stateside, The Recycling Partnership, an industry collaboration focused on measurably improving curbside recycling in the U.S., has partnered with the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) to create a customized contamination reduction toolkit to test and refine with pilot cities and local material recovery facilities (MRFs) to deliver a field-trialed data-supported program ready for launch.

“Our communities are facing a challenging obstacle to recycling in the form of contamination, and we believe that this new approach will move our entire recycling system well past that barrier,” MassDEP Commissioner Martin Suuberg said in a recent interview. “Beyond that, the universal nature of this program should unite our state’s recycling efforts in powerful new ways, increasing customer awareness and enabling more participation in local programs.”

As for the critical component of funding, the Closed Loop Fund (CLP) last year began providing no-interest loans to cities and below-market-rate loans to companies building recycling infrastructure. The Fund has amassed $100 million from major brands including Procter & Gamble, PepsiCo, 3M, Walmart, Coca-Cola, Johnson & Johnson, Unilever and Goldman Sachs.

The Closed Loop Fund is the brainchild of Ron Gonen, founder of Recyclebank and New York City’s deputy commissioner for sanitation, recycling and sustainability under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. One of the first investments for the Fund is an 80,000-square-foot plant on the outskirts of Baltimore built to process hard-to-recycle plastics otherwise headed toward landfills or incinerators. Sorted, washed and ground into uniform plastic flakes, the flakes are then sold to big companies and plastics manufacturers to create new products.

The Plastic Recycling Facility “leverages new technology and business model to aggregate #3-#7 plastics from communities in a 500-mile radius that would have likely otherwise gone to landfill (like yogurt cups, take-out containers, etc) so they have enough scale that it makes sense financially to sort them into their respective commodities and recycle them into new products and packaging where they otherwise would have been waste,” Closed Loop Fund’s Bridget Croke told Sustainable Brands. “This model has huge implications on what gets recycled and is highly replicable.”

“We have also invested in two best-in-class models in the Midwest (Portage Co, Ohio and Quad Cities, Iowa), a region of the county with chronically low recycling rates,” Croke said. “These new single-stream recycling programs for residents use the best infrastructure and best practices that will lift recycling rates and act as a model for similar communities throughout the Midwest.”

As organizations around the world continue to see and prove the business case for recycling, they’re laying the groundwork for the ability to deploy circular economics at scale.

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