In 2007 each American generated 4.62 pounds of garbage each day, slightly less than the previous year. Of that, 1.5 pounds were recycled with 2.5 pounds per capita being thrown away and the rest composted. Last year in America, 91,000 tons of materials were recycled each day, for a total of 85 million tons recycled and 189 million tons thrown into landfills or sent to combustion.
Many community recycling programs have not kept pace with changes in recycling technology and best practices. They operate under very tight budgets that limit their ability to invest and improve outcomes.
These factors call for a renewed focus on residential recycling programs as the key to significant improvements in recycling rates. For these improvements to last, recycling programs must move to a sustainable operating model, both from an economic and an environmental perspective. If the full economic and environmental benefits of recycling are realized, recycling will gain greater political support.
There are 6 essential elements of a sustainable, effective residential recycling program that cities and towns should incorporate into their plan. These include:
- Parallel access (matching recycling and waste service) Collaborate with haulers/collectors to collect recycling on the same day as waste (parallel service). Cities with parallel service have documented increases in recovery, when collection days were matched up.
- Right-sized containers (large enough to hold all recyclables) There is nothing more frustrating than setting aside your recyclables and not being able to fit them in your collection bin! While the smaller open top bins were popular first steps for residential recycling, great strides have been made in cities that have converted to “carts” – wheeled containers that are large enough for all materials a household generates. These 60 – 90 gallon carts can hold all the milk jugs, magazines, catalogs, bottles and cans a household generates in a week – and easily roll out to the curb for pickup.
- Single-stream collection (collect all recyclables together) Single stream recycling is a new easy and convenient way for residents to recycle. One cart is made available for all materials – not having to sort into separate bins cuts down on the space needed for recycling collection and the time it takes for citizens to recycle. The sorting of materials into commodities is done at a processing center, where materials run through machinery that sorts and bales commodities together.
- High value material focus (collect the most valuable commodities) Collect high-value recyclables: be sure to include aluminum, plastic, magazines and catalogs and newspaper along with junk mail and steel cans. The high value materials (aluminum and PET) will supply needed revenues to the recycling business model.
- Financial incentives, including PAYT and recycling rewards (motivate participation) Incentive to recycle:
- Pay as you throw success stories are numerous and are included in this website
- Recycling rewards: whether it be PAYT or one of the new incentive programs like RecycleBank, the link of incentives and successful recycling participation has been documented time and again
- Education and outreach (move the “sometimes” recyclers to “always” recyclers) Effective and adequately funded education and promotion: integrate information on what to put on the carts to a comprehensive communication plan. Citizens need to know what goes in the bin and when to set it out. Simple targeted messaging increases participation rates.
Each of these essential elements add value and efficiency to a local recycling system.