While recycling is a cultural norm, reducing consumption and waste production is the most effective step toward reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.
AS the largest residential recycler in North America and Seattle’s oldest curbside-recycling-service provider, Waste Management has seen big changes in recycling over almost three decades of recycling in Seattle and the Puget Sound region. Moreover, just like the world around us, our business is constantly changing.
In the early curbside recycling programs of the 1980s and ’90s, our customers sorted their recyclables into three stackable bins. Cans and bottles went into one bin, newspaper into another, mixed paper and cardboard into a third bin. Using this system, the Pacific Northwest became a real leader in recycling.
As a society, our recycling evolution was just getting started. We learned that more people recycle more items when we make recycling more convenient, so we replaced the bins with wheeled carts for recyclables. Because the goal was to recycle as much as possible, these “all-in-one” recycling programs became the norm across the county as communities strove to make recycling as easy as possible.
Fast forward to current times and more change: What happened to those newspapers delivered to our doorstep each morning? For years, last week’s newspapers were the “bread and butter” of our recycling programs. Of course, none of us should be terribly surprised to hear that we are generating 50 percent less newspaper in the U.S. in 2016 than we did a decade ago.
Moreover, the changes don’t stop there. Instead of drinking soda out of cans, we are drinking water out of plastic bottles. What about all that cardboard that fills up our recycling bins at home as our online purchases arrive at our door? Changes in the stuff we buy and use at home translates into changes in the material that ends up in our recycling carts.
Little attention was paid to these changes — until recently. As described in a recent Seattle Times article, [“Recyclers of metals, plastics battered by global commodity plunge,” Business, March 5], recyclables are commodities — metal, plastic and paper — and are in their fifth year of a pricing decline. Because the value of the recyclables sold helps to cover the cost of recycling, changes in the types of materials that we use, combined with the depressed value of metal, plastics and paper are affecting recycling programs across the country.
Waste Management is examining every part of our recycling business in order to adapt to the changes happening around us. Several years ago, we began working with companies that make the packaging and products that end up in recycling carts so we can all be better prepared for the future. In the process, we’ve all learned a lot about consumer-purchasing trends and their relationship to our operations and the environment.
Coming full circle, we’ve long known that preventing waste is a much better solution than recycling it. Studies show that some types of new plastic-packaging technology use fewer natural resources and create less greenhouse-gas emissions than the traditional types of packaging — even when the new packaging is non-recyclable. In multiple studies, non-recyclable plastic pouches — such as FedEx pouches and those used for juice and some types of soup — are a much better choice from a greenhouse-gas-emissions perspective because they are lightweight and use less virgin resources than the recyclable materials they replace. The use of these pouches is growing because consumers love their convenience. In addition, they make environmental sense — yes, even though they are not recyclable.
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All of these changes are a reminder of what is really important. While recycling is a widely accepted cultural norm, reducing consumption and waste production is the first and most effective step toward reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.
The Pacific Northwest is in a perfect place to embrace this broader way of thinking. Let’s take advantage of the region’s commitment to the environment to ensure we are reducing waste first and focusing on recycling the right materials — all with the end goal of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.
Matt Stern is area director of recycling for Waste Management.