As companies, policymakers, local program coordinators, nonprofits and other stakeholders grapple with changes in commodity markets, some have begun to question the fundamental tenets of recycling itself.
With this topic circulating in discussions throughout WasteExpo in Las Vegas last week, Waste Dive made a point of raising it with executives from some of the industry's top organizations to hear their takes. The same question we posed to each of them: "Whose responsibility is it to make recycling work?"
Reactions ranged from bold optimism to more measured projections. Some agreed that it has become easy to pass the buck on this issue, others had more direct ideas of where responsibility, but all said that the conversation needs to continue.
Darrell Smith, President and CEO of the National Waste & Recycling Association
"This is a little bump in the road, and it's a significant bump, but I think because of two things I have an optimistic view of what's going on with recycling right now. One, Americans really like to recycle. It's part of our culture now and they're not going to give it up. So because of that they're going to create the demand, they're going to create a market, and our industry's going to respond and we're going to figure it out. And I think everything's going to be okay."
Jim Fish, President and CEO of Waste Management
"In our minds, as the biggest recycler in North America, it's certainly going to be part our responsibility. If we're the ones that have to initiate the conversation, then that's okay with us. We look at that as being part of our job. So I think it's going to take a while. It's not an easy conversation to have with a municipality. To say, 'look you're sending us a lot of trash, your diversion goals are unrealistic.' Those conversations aren't easy, but in order for this to be a, no pun intended, sustainable business going forward we've got to have those conversations."
Pete Keller, Vice President of Recycling for Republic Services
"I think it's everybody. It's all stakeholders. I don't know if folks are trying to pass the buck so much as they are maybe suggesting this is a pretty tough problem. But I would say that it's going to take all of us to figure it out."
David Biderman, Executive Director and CEO of the Solid Waste Association of North America
“It’s a shared responsibility amongst all the stakeholders in the North American recycling system to improve the quality of the material generated at MRFs. That includes the manufacturers of packaging, the collection companies, local governments and MRF owners and operators. We need to work together to reduce contamination and ensure the success of sustainable recycling programs in the U.S. and Canada."
John Casella, Chairman and CEO of Casella Waste Systems
"The buck stops with municipalities who set public policy. We can implement the public policy, but we don't set public policy. So all we can do is tell them what it's going to cost to recycle mixed paper. If mixed paper stays at $5 a ton and it costs us $40 a ton to get it to the pier, and to Vietnam or Thailand or wherever we can sell that material, they're going to have to pay for it. We're we're not an industry that's going to subsidize that. So they're going to have to make some public policy decisions in terms of what they want to pay for, or do they want to change their program."
Michael Allegretti, Senior Vice President of Policy and Strategic Initiatives at Rubicon Global
"It's absolutely every piece of the chain. It is my responsibility as a homeowner and citizen at my own home to read the label that is provided to me, presumably by my government, telling me how to sort my recycling. We have to move past the excuse that 'well no one will ever do it.' They do it all over the world ... It is on the industry to evolve itself to perhaps make its process a little more detailed and a little more focused ... It's an easy process if we all actually pause for a moment at the waste receptacle instead of just chucking the thing in the bin."
Kathryn Garcia, Commissioner of New York's Department of Sanitation
"I'm not going to let the public off the hook for doing the wrong thing, but I'm not going to let manufacturers off the hook for providing us with materials that are really hard to recycle and I'm not going to let government off the hook for not making sure that there are programs that the public can easily use. It is a multi-pronged stool that won't be successful unless we're all really working hard together ... I think there is certainly a very large role for government to really push to have it done, but I'm not of the mindset that we're going to solve it by ourselves."