Alec Cooley

Senior Advisor, Busch Systems
June 2019

The past year has been a difficult one for recycling programs across the US. The market disruptions caused by China’s National Sword policy have caused decision makers to question the viability of local collection programs. Compounding this challenge has been a steady stream of media stories suggesting recycling itself is “dying”. While industry veterans have watched recycling survive and continue to grow through past commodity market turmoil, elected officials and the general public often lack this context to realize that this too will pass.

Has recycling become unaffordable? Is it worth the effort to separate recyclables at the curb?

Long after the current market challenges have passed, we face a separate risk of the “recycling is broken” narrative hardening into a long term perception that undermines support for recycling programs into the future. As an industry, we need to proactively counter this narrative

The message we convey needs to be realistic and not sugar coat the current challenges, but rather provide context that reinforces recycling’s long term viability and the significant benefits it provides. Here are suggested talking points for two key audiences.

Talking points for elected officials and decision makers:

  • Recycling is not dying. The market volatility caused by China is simply an extreme example of the fluctuations we’ve experienced in the past. It may take a few years to rebuild, but there are already signs of the industry responding to address the underlying issues.

  • Avoid causing more damage with short sighted decisions. Unlike sewer, road maintenance or other municipal services, recycling collections only function properly with the active participation of the people it serves. Changes to what or how to recycle can lead to long term confusion that results in greater contamination or people making less of an effort. Be careful that program cut backs in response to near-term markets don’t lead to lower participation when prices rebound.

  • Put recycling costs into a broader context. Landfill tipping fees may be low in Iowa, but they’re not free. Canceling recycling does not eliminate and can even increase costs.

  • Recycling benefits the local economy. Processing recyclables into new products supports ten or more jobs for every one needed to dispose waste to the landfill. Cutting recycling programs eliminates more than just the collection jobs.

  • Seize the opportunity. Use the current market situation to leverage support for policies to improve recycling programs. For example:

    • Expand education efforts to address contamination and improve the quality of your recycling materials so they can command a better price.

    • Make a greater effort to coordinate uniform messaging, color standards, etc. with neighboring recycling programs to avoid inconsistency that leads to confusion.

  • Offer a strategy. Give decision makers viable, proactive steps to take. If action needs to be taken, you want to guide the strategy rather than leave a vacuum for others to suggest more radical, non-recycling-friendly alternatives.

  • Communicate to your constituents. Elected officials and other leaders can support recycling by visibly letting people know through op-eds, interviews, etc. that recycling is hear to stay. Their voices can counter negative stories by sharing a long term vision that encourages people to keep faith in recycling.

  • It’s the law.  Identify any state or local ordinances/laws that make it unlawful to landfill target recyclables.  Communicate these laws as well as the financial impact for non-compliance.

Talking points for the general public:

  • You make a difference when you recycle: Despite stories they may have heard, most recyclables are in fact recycled. Research has shown that a prime motivator of recycling behavior is understanding that it leads to a tangible result. Whether they care about the environmental benefits, it’s important that people know the bottle they put in a recycling bin actually gets turned into something new. To the extent possible, research where local scrap materials are going and tell people what they’re being turned into with as much specificity as you can. This helps counteract the corrosive belief some have that “it all gets thrown out anyway”.

  • You can help recycling by sorting correctly. Acknowledge the problems with China and contamination are real, but then give people a call to action that allows them to personally help solve the problem.

  • Reduce what you consume.  Pivot the narrative to how people can have a greater impact than even recycling:  reducing what they consume. Education programs tend to focus on recycling, but now is a good time to reinforce the other “R’s”.

  • Above all, keep it positive. Recycling is going through a rough patch, but this is an established multi-billion dollar, international industry that generates hundreds of thousands of jobs and has a direct, measurable impact improving the environment. Be transparent about the challenges, but also give them a positive reason to have faith in recycling and waste prevention.