Recycling Revolution

By Michele Bacigalupo

Photo courtesy of Ruth Hartnup.

Every day, humans abuse the planet’s resources without so much as a second thought. Rare metals and minerals are vanishing at an extremely rapid rate, while the cost to extract new material rises. As a result, the cost of basic commodities has reached an alarming high.

The recycling rate in America has hovered around 34 percent for the last two decades. Approximately 40 billion aluminum cans take up space in landfills each year, despite the fact that creating a can from recycled aluminum requires 95 percent less energy than using brand new material.

A number of factors account for the country’s low recycling percentage, including the fact that many people do not have access to recycling bins or redistribution centers. Almost 25 percent of Americans also lack the convenience of curbside recycling.

Most recycling centers that currently exist in the US were built in the early 1990s. They are subsequently outdated and struggle to keep up with the perpetually changing trends of waste products that are delivered.

Recently, lots of US companies have taken an initiative to improve their recycling percentage. Walmart is determined to accomplish its goal of using three billion pounds of recycled plastic for its products and packaging by the year 2020. However, the company is already facing trouble trying to find a steady supply of recycled material. To accept responsibility for the issue, Walmart has backed a $100 million loan fund to finance projects to increase recycling rates.

A circular economy may be the answer to our country’s issues with recycling. The European Union describes this system as “boosting recycling and preventing the loss of valuable materials,” along with employing new business models that move towards zero-waste, decreasing greenhouse gases, and strengthening the economy.

So long as such dynamics work correctly, a circular economy would replenish Earth’s dwindling resources. Compared to several other developed nations, the US is a tad late to the environmentally conscious party. An analysis conducted by the Waste & Resources Action Programme estimates that 19 percent of the UK economy already functions in a circular way.

From a business standpoint, a circular economy can potentially develop in a number of ways. In fact, Accenture composed a report consisting of five separate business models, all of which focus on the creation and retention of resources. Each model explains methods conducive to increasing productivity, while still cutting back on costs and producing a profit for the company.

The benefits associated with a circular economy go above and beyond those of simple recycling practices. The system is inherently restorative, aiming to minimize energy while redesigning waste.

As the Ellen MacArthur Foundation explains, “A circular economy seeks to rebuild capital, whether this is financial, manufactured, human, social, or natural.”

Keep America Beautiful (KAB) is a nonprofit that is heavily involved with the promotion of a circular economy. KAB works to “build and sustain vibrant communities.”

BTR spoke with Brenda Pulley, Senior Vice President, Recycling, at KAB. Pulley tells BTR that the motto behind KAB encourages individuals to “give garbage another life.”

Pulley explains, “We are seeing a shift in how people are viewing waste. [The items we throw away] don’t have to be a waste, but can be a resource.”

Currently underway at KAB is the company’s first National Public Service ad campaign, entitled “I Want to Be Recycled.” The campaign not only encourages people to repurpose their waste, but also emphasizes that participants understand the journey of recycled materials.

The campaign’s website is highly informative, with detailed explanations that investigate the recycling process behind everyday household items. Individuals can read about the different steps involved with recycling an old aluminum can. Accompanying the descriptions are vibrant cartoon images which tell story of how the can becomes reincarnated into a shiny, new version of its former self.

“The campaign is designed to make an emotional connection,” says Pulley. “It reassures people that when they recycle it really does become something new.”

The initial public service announcement that launched with the campaign in 2013 chronicles the journey of a plastic bottle around the country.

Pulley tells BTR that many people come to her with questions regarding the recycling of common items such as pizza boxes, plastic bottle caps, and plastic bags. She responds by informing them about the proper market to recycle the material.

Think about all the items consumers use throughout the day. Almost everything purchased comes wrapped in plastic–from the sandwiches we eat for lunch to the dry cleaning we pick up on our way home from work.

Another monumental campaign that KAB is in the midst of is called America Recycles Day. Members of the public can take a pledge online to implement recycling as an integral component of their daily routines.

Of course, taking the pledge is only the first step toward making recycling a priority. The actual fulfillment of the campaign’s promise lies within the consumer’s own power.

“Have a bin readily accessible, and make sure you know what, where, and when to recycle in your community,” encourages Pulley.