Recycle Across America: Standardization, not education, can fix contamination
Recycle Across America has a straightforward goal: Get every recycling system across the country, from schools, to businesses, to municipalities, to use standardized labels.
The hope, in implementing a standardized system across the country, is to reduce consumer confusion when someone walks up to a bin to recycle something. If the bins at someone's office have the same labels as their kid's school, ideally, that person will be more likely to recycle the right type of material in the right ways.
For Recycle Across America Executive Director Mitch Hedlund, the battle to improve recycling in the United States is all about this standardization, not education. Education is important, but if labels or instructions on bins are different across the country, the argument goes, consumers may not be able to recycle correctly.
When consumers don't know how to recycle, they can fall into two traps: Not recycling, which lowers participation rates, or "wish-cycling," which increases contamination.
Contamination, of course, is an especially prominent concern now, in light of China's decisions to tighten imports. China's 0.5% contamination standard for many material imports goes into effect March 1.
Waste Dive recently spoke with Hedlund to further understand why she places such an emphasis on standardizing recycling labels — and how she says those moves could help the recycling industry
This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
WASTE DIVE: When we've spoken before, you said something along the lines of, when it comes to reducing recycling contamination and boosting recycling, it's not about 'education,' it's more about standardization. Could you expand on that?
MITCH HEDLUND: Everybody talks about, well, let's educate more. Well, you can't educate more because wherever we go out in public, or even at our home, the rules are different, the way that the information is presented is completely different, and truthfully, it's presented in such a bad way that it's hard for people to take it too seriously.
It's like driver's education. If you can envision that every single stop sign looks different on every corner, and so does every speed limit sign, and school crossing sign. If everywhere you go looks entirely different from one to the next, educating people to drive properly wouldn't work. You'd be educating them about why it's important, but you wouldn't be educating them on how to do it because everywhere they go, it looks different; all the indicators and all the signage looks different. And that's exactly what keeps happening in recycling.
We have to make the labeling standardized across the U.S.
The first thing my mind goes to when you say we have to standardize across the country is, well, who's going to pay for that? Who is 'responsible' for that?
HEDLUND: After eight or nine years of this, I have a little bit of this kind of outspokenness about this, to say this is a really bizarre industry. The recycling industry needs the materials back. But they leave it up to all of their customers to try and figure out how to create a recycling program in their building.
Say a hauler wins a large contract, and they say, 'Yeah, we're so glad we won this contract; here's the signed contract; we've got a recycling dumpster outside of the buildings; we want everything mixed together, all the recycling. We're going to pick it up next Wednesday.'
And then there's somebody in every single building, every single school, every single airport, every single sports stadium, every mall, every small business, who isn't even in the recycling business. They're scratching their heads, trying to say, 'well, I wonder what kind of bins we should get? And I wonder where we should put them in our buildings? And I wonder how we should label them?'
And all of those people across the U.S., making those vital decisions for their buildings, for the recycling industry, determines whether recycling actually works or not.
Recycle Across America Executive Director Mitch Hedlund compares recycling to a blood bank.
So instead, your ideal situation would be standardized labels provided by the haulers?
HEDLUND: Imagine where there is a standardized labeling system that has been designed, and now the recycling haulers want to use it — even if they're competing haulers, it doesn't affect them at all. In fact, they should want a standardized labeling system nationally. Because if we can show that these labels are making a dramatic increase in the recycling levels and the contamination in many cases is undetectable, then that's a win for all of the recycling haulers.
It's hard for me to imagine a world where labeling is effective enough, without single-stream, to really eliminate the contamination problem.
If there's standardized labeling on a national level, you are getting good materials for the most part, and there again, paper is a victim, cardboard is a victim. But I do think that even the issues with those two porous products will still be minimal compared to what they're experiencing right now. Also, with the standardized labeling, there isn't going to be the mistake of plastic bags going into bins, and that correction itself would change, I would think, hundreds of millions of dollars worth of costs, with MRF equipment breaking down and injuries.
And the other thing I can tell you is we need to get back to the basics also. Metal cans, plastic bottles, glass bottles and jars, and then cardboard and paper, and get back to the basics. And you know, get the whole country operating on just the obvious basic recyclables.
If we get to the point where every aluminum can is making it into a recycling bin, or a high percentage is, and every plastic bottle with a neck and cap is making it into a bin, and paper or cardboard — that, environmentally and from an economic standpoint, is an entire gamechanger.
When we talk about changes that have to be made to recycling programs, and we talk about the reality of where recycled material goes after it's collected — sometimes to a landfill, for example — do you think there's any risk of breaking the consumer's trust in recycling? Might all the action related to China make people think recycling isn't really worth it?
HEDLUND: The scary part is we're walking a very fine line between helping people really understand what's happening and having them not just go, 'What's the point?'
With where things are right now, I have more hope now than I have before. Because it does take this kind of shakeup to really make change, so right now, I actually have a lot more hope.
We need to make it easier for the public to start recycling right. And when we do that, there is a whole auto-correct that will start to happen on the backside that will make this an economically thriving industry. But until we fix that public experience at the bin, we're at risk of losing recycling.
How does the industry overcome that risk, then, of losing public confidence?
HEDLUND: We're saying there is an easy, easy fix for recycling on a national and global level, if our country fixes that public experience at the bin, and they will make more profits. Those companies [that own both landfills and recycling services] that are right now profiting on the landfills, and on the collapse of recycling, [but] they will make more money in the long run, and in the short term, if they embrace this solution. But as soon as they go so far where they've lost the public, then we're in trouble.
So ultimately, if the industry improves recycling, improves the consumer experience of recycling, it would reduce contamination, which would ultimately reduce the cost of recycling and make it a more profitable enterprise?
HEDLUND: Yeah, absolutely. And in the end, they know that landfilling is not going to be the answer forever, so they're not lying about that. It is very expensive to open up a new landfill; the regulations are getting worse. They're just cashing in on a collapse right now. When the tide changes and the cost of landfilling is incredibly expensive and there is a backlash about recycling, they're going to be left holding the cleanup bag.
And again, it's not a threat to the industry, it's just saying, 'Industry, please take a look at some options that could make [the recycling side of] your business more profitable. And long-term, permanently more profitable.'
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