By Adam Gendell, Associate Director Sustainable Packaging Coalition, GreenBlue & SWEEP Steering Committee Member
Of all the sustainability attributes that marketing departments consider putting on a package, none are coveted so much as recyclability. And fortunately for marketing departments everywhere, many types of packaging can be called “recyclable”. Throughout the packaging community, the Federal Trade Commission’s rule is widely known: an item may bear an unqualified claim of recyclability if at least 60% of the population – that’s a “substantial majority”, in FTC language – has a recycling facility available to them capable of processing the item (it’s formally a guideline, but taken as a rule). A number of studies have been undertaken to quantify the percentage of the population with recycling programs accepting various types of packaging, and the most comprehensive study, the SPC’s Centralized Study on the Availability of Recycling, found that recycling programs are available to the substantial majority of Americans and those programs accept all major types of packaging. Many types of packaging were found to have astronomical rates. For instance, 94% of Americans have an available recycling program that accepts aluminum cans.
But if 94% of Americans can recycle aluminum cans, it appears somewhat curious that the most recent EPA data gives an aluminum can recycling rate of only 55%. The reason for this disparity, I’ll argue, is that 94% of Americans don’t have a convenient recycling program. We all have convenient garbage collection (well, most of us), but recycling is too often relatively inconvenient. For a very small minority of Americans, that doesn’t mean they need curbside recycling. In rural areas where residents are accustomed to hauling their own garbage to the transfer station, a drop-off recycling depot can be considered equal in convenience. But for the vast majority of Americans who have curbside garbage service, curbside recycling is needed if we expect them to recycle something even so obviously recyclable as the aluminum can. The SPC’s study showed that only 68% of Americans have a curbside recycling program accepting cans. Even though this is still that “substantial majority” of Americans, it needs to be stressed that not all curbside programs are convenient. The best curbside programs are automatically provided by the municipality without any action necessary on behalf of the residents. Only 54% of Americans live in areas with these automatically-provided curbside programs! Correlation is of course not causation, but it’s much easier to reconcile this 54% rate of providing convenient recycling with the 55% recycling rate for aluminum cans.
There’s another curious case to be found when looking at recycling rates and the provision of recycling programs: PET bottles are just as recyclable as aluminum cans (94% of Americans have an available program that takes them), but their recycling rate is 31% – a significant drop from the rate of aluminum cans. But before concluding that Americans simply choose to recycle aluminum cans more than they choose to recycle PET bottles, it’s important to think about where waste is generated. PET bottles dominate the soda market, while aluminum cans dominate the beer market. Soda tends to be consumed on-the-go, while beer is probably better suited for at-home consumption. Their difference in recycling rates reflects the difference of recycling receptacles at-home versus away-from-home! The provision of conveniently available recycling goes beyond residential programs. Recycling receptacles are needed everywhere garbage receptacles exist.
This is the opportunity for SWEEP. Best practices in providing recycling are known, and SWEEP is poised to define and proliferate those best practices. Communities and companies should be recognized for activities that promote convenient recycling, such as automatically providing curbside recycling at home, away-from-home recycling receptacles, and recycling programs at apartments – another area sorely lacking in convenience. By defining and rewarding best practices, we can combat the low and stagnant recycling rates in the U.S. and fully realize the potential to productively repurpose discarded materials.