Research and technologies exist to help make a more environmentally responsible company a reality. The benefits aren’t just for the environment – customers will be happier, employees will be more engaged, and the organization will have stronger and longer-lasting growth. Read our 2020 State of Recycling Report to learn more about existing strategies and how your business can be more sustainable.

Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV

 

5 Key Recycling & Diversion Insights

Key concepts for businesses to keep in mind in 2020.

 


 

1. Governments are setting tougher targets for recycling and diversion goals.

As landfills stack up and residents become more environmentally active, city and state governments are enacting stricter recycling laws. San Diego, Washington DC, Phoenix, New York, Seattle, Boise, and many others are exploring or have already put new laws in place to drive a reduced waste mindset.

The Business Takeaway: Keep up with local policy. As regulations change, companies and individuals will need to adapt their waste and disposal methods.

 

2. The recycling industry is still adapting to China’s “National Sword” policy.

In early 2018, China banned the import of some plastics and other materials headed for its recycling processors – creating a backlog of recyclable goods across the globe1 and leading to countries landfilling recyclables. Today, though there has been a rise in technology, education, diversion, and other tactics, it remains to be seen if the US will rise to the occasion and adapt.

The Business Takeaway: Residential recycling service costs hit $6.85 per month per household due to repercussions from National Sword – up 11% over 2018 costs2. Commercial and residential recycling costs will continue to rise as countries figure out new ways to handle additional recycling processes.

 

3. The United States is doing better at recycling and waste management… but there’s room to improve.

In 1960, only 7% of US waste was recycled or diverted – today, that number is almost 40%3, a 5x increase! Yet, education is still necessary as recyclables in the waste stream are highly contaminated. Meanwhile, each American still generates 4.5 pounds3 of waste a day – and it’s growing each year. The US has a long way to go towards achieving a net zero impact.

The Business Takeaway: Overconsumption in the US is a problem. Reduction of waste simply starts with using less.

 

4. When it comes to recycling, not all products are created equal.

Understanding environmental impacts and methods for recycling products versus reusing is critically important. For example, reusing or donating a car can save 8,811 lbs. of CO2 greenhouse emissions4 (compared to building a new one). Correctly reusing a refrigerator can eliminate 566 lbs. of CO2 greenhouse gases – and both are notoriously hard to recycle. Yet, recycling a ton of plastic bottles can save 3,380 lbs. of C02 emissions4 – and are tricky to traditionally reuse.

The Business Takeaway: Based on the product, understand your options. In most cases, reuse or diversion should be considered before traditional recycling or disposal.

 

5. People want sustainability – and they’re willing to make changes to get it.

Consumers are shifting to eco-friendly and virtue-based brands – evident by the likes of sustainably sourced goods, plant based foods, and repurposed products. Method soaps, Rothy’s shoes, and Beyond Meat are all perfect examples. Additionally, employees want to work with companies that are environmentally conscious, and companies are responding5. Today, nearly 3,000 Certified B Corporations exist in the world6, almost double the volume from three years ago.

The Business Takeaway: Make sustainability a core part of your business, and let customers and employees know about the steps you’re taking, and get them involved.

 

Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV

 

What’s Happening in Recycling & Reuse Today

A brief look at the current state of recycling, reuse, and diversion.

 


 

The recycling industry is a crucial part of nearly all our lives – operating tirelessly to make sure we take better care of our planet. Each year, millions of tons of recyclable materials are collected and moved across the world, with nearly 2,000 recycling facilities7 and tens of thousands of individuals working together to help ensure waste is properly recycled.

Demand for recycling is driven by almost every aspect of our community, but recycling primarily sees strong demand from industrial markets, construction activity, and steady demand from the residential household. Over the last five years, each of the three primary drivers has seen significant growth as the US economy and populations steadily grew. Additionally, evolving government legislation and public awareness have pushed for greater demand of recycling services and other forms of waste stream diversion – with overall waste recycling percentages hitting record highs in 20197.

 

Millions of Tons of Recycled & Composted Materials*

*Most recent data available. Source: EPA

 

Power of the People

General awareness about humanity’s impact on the earth and the growing concern around climate change has increased rapidly over the last decade – now making it a hot topic across the globe. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, academic research, and news outlets have helped extend the reach of sustainability, and the message that we as humans need to change our ways. The rise of “sustainable influencers” like Greta Thunberg, Stella McCartney, and Mark Ruffalo have elevated the conversation to new levels. Global events like the Climate Strike, the Economist’s Sustainability Summit, and the Business Roundtable, shine light on businesses’ role in the climate conversation. Elected officials are seeing the impact too, as online petitions and social media channels become an integral part of expression for many constituents.

 

Changing Government Regulations

As citizens become more cognizant of their impact on the planet, more people are encouraging their city and state legislators to enact stricter standards for reuse, recycling, and diversion – and legislators are listening. California, one of the more eco-forward states, intends to raise their waste recycling rate from 50% to 75% by 20208. DC recently introduced the “Zero Waste Omnibus Amendment Act of 2019” as part of a larger effort to ensure the city remains on track to meet its goal of achieving “zero waste” by 2032. Florida is following suit – adopting a weight-based recycling rate target of 75% as well8. Cities are jumping on board as growing waste volumes continue to hamper city resources. San Francisco, Boston, Washington DC, and many other US cities are adding additional requirements on top of state laws for businesses and residents within the city limits. New York City is pushing the boundaries even further also focusing on diverting hundreds of thousands of tons of organics via a newly announced proposal. As regulations continue to grow in number and strength, expect recycling players to respond in kind with additional innovative and expanded offerings.

 

 

States with New or Proposed Expansion of Recycling Legislation

Source: Waste Dive

 

National Sword and China’s Impact

Over the past several decades, fueled by the country’s astronomical growth in industrialization, China has been the single largest importer of recyclable materials, handling almost half of the global volume9 – buying up and processing secondhand materials at a rapid pace. However, in January 2018, in an attempt to curb the country’s growing pollution problem, China enacted a law called ‘National Sword’, singlehandedly cutting their import of many recycled materials (primarily plastic waste)9. The US and many other industrialized countries like England and Australia have been hit hard, as they don’t have the full resources necessary to handle the backlog of accruing recyclable materials. The events triggered by China’s ban drive home the need for expanded and efficient recycling processes as well as more easily recyclable products from manufacturers.

New Technologies and Processes

Today, drastic new technologies are emerging to help individuals, companies, and recyclers to better handle sustainability.

PureCycle: PureCycle’s ground-breaking patented recycling process separates color, odor, and contaminants from plastic waste feedstock to transform it into virgin-like recycled polypropylene – fully closing the loop on the reuse of recycled plastics10.

VolCat (Volatile Catalyst): IBM researchers have discovered a catalytic chemical process that digests certain plastics into a substance which can be fed directly back into plastic manufacturing machines in order to make new products11.

AMP Cortex DRS: AMP Robotics’ Cortex machine is a new high-speed robot guided by an AI platform, computer vision, and machine learning to identify and rapidly sort, pick, and place materials at an unprecedented speed of 160 pieces per minute creating optimum productivity12.

TerraCycle: They take hard-to-recycle materials, such as ocean plastic, and turn them into new products. Their new Loop platform aims to change the way the world shops with favorite brands in refillable packaging offered with convenience and style.

Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV

 

Unpacking the True Impact of Products

Should you reduce, reuse, or recycle products?

 


 

Many consumers assume that efforts to recycle an item are equal for all products, but detailed research in the field shows that certain products are significantly better suited for diversion and reuse. Diversion is a key opportunity to alleviate potentially costly and resource-heavy recycling efforts. When looking at the potential impact of a variety of products, we begin to see that all products are not created equal in the eyes of the environment. For instance, reusing one car, instead of taking it to the landfill, will save nearly 9,000 pounds of greenhouse gasses that would have been produced in the making of a new car13. Similarly, appliances and consumer electronics have significant benefits when it comes to being recycled or diverted.

 

How Well is the US Doing at Waste Recycling?

 

In terms of actual waste that is being recycled or composted today, the US is achieving mixed results. For items like batteries, cardboard, and food containers, the US is achieving substantial results, with more than 50% of the waste streams being recycled14. However, when looking at the flipside, the US is faring incredibly poorly in other categories. Clothing, furniture, food waste, and small appliances have very low recycle rates. With these objects, many residents and businesses are either incapable of recycling them or simply don’t know how. There is a huge opportunity for the US to begin targeting these areas more specifically through the use of education, diversion avenues, and overall adaptive reuse.

 

Percent Share of Waste Stream that was Recycled or Composted

 

 

*In 2013 – Most recent data available. Source: EPA, Pew Research

 

Sustainability in Products

More consumers are taking tangible steps to address global environmental issues by making personal changes – and it’s evident in the marketplace that exists today: the strength of the sharing economy through the likes of Lyft, Airbnb, and Rent The Runway; the rise of socially conscious companies like Allbirds, Patagonia, and Beyond Meat, who build sustainability into every aspect of their businesses (supply chain, marketing, and product design); and the solid growth of resale venues and consignment stores. Whether it’s ethical labor practices, sourcing recycled materials, or doing more with less, these points all insulate the trend that sustainability in consumer products is here to stay. Proof of fact, according to Euromonitor research, nearly 54% of US consumers consider a product’s impact on the world in their purchasing decisions15.

 

Sustainability in Employers

It’s not just in products either – people deeply care about the corporate sustainability of their employers. In a recent survey, nearly 40% of millennials have chosen a job because of a company’s sustainability mission13. 50% of workers in the US also stated that they would be willing to accept a smaller salary to work for a company that’s environmentally responsible16. Sustainability and corporate responsibility are critically important to landing new talent and holding on to them. Nearly 60% of employees believe that corporate sustainability is a moral imperative17.

Unilever is a great example of how instituting a corporate mission around sustainability can provide massive benefits to the organization. In 2010, Unilever instituted its “Sustainable Living Plan”, focused on corporate social responsibility and overall better sustainability practices, and it encouraged the firm’s 155,000 employees to take the vision to heart18. The plan has since pervaded the entire organization from the C-Suite down to seasonal hires, and the plan was recently adopted into a key part of Unilever’s permanent organizational vision. Upon discussing the impacts of the move, Unilever executives noted more engaged employees, new sustainability initiatives and innovations popping up, and it massively increased interest in people wanting to join the organization (they’re now the third most searched company on LinkedIn by job hunters)19.

In order to stay competitive in today’s environment, companies need to seriously consider sustainability’s role in their organization and make changes in turn.

 

What to Expect Going Forward

Lots of momentum is happening on the waste management, recycling, and sustainability front. Customers and employees expect companies to have and promote sustainable practices. New technologies are redefining and improving the waste management field. Growing populations and increased regulations are driving organizations and citizens to make recycling and reuse practices key parts of their business.


 

So, What’s Next

Today, the US and recycling industry is still pivoting – turning towards technology, innovations, and other methods to aid in the efficiency of the recycling process. Reduction and reuse are initiatives that we can implement immediately to alleviate the strain on many recycling resources. Based on the materials and resources on-hand, a variety of waste management solutions exist to ensure the volume of waste sent to landfills is minimal. One promising (and quickly growing) method is diversion, built around the intent of ensuring that waste materials are simply repurposed as quickly as possible, without seeing the inside of a landfill or holding area.

 

Where Businesses Can Start

According to World Economic Forum, scientists are predicting that if nothing changes in our plastic consumption habits, there will be more plastic waste in the oceans than there are fish by 2050 – a huge problem. Corporations have massive environmental footprints (not just manufacturers), so today’s companies need to be more proactive about sustainability and how it intersects with their business. Whether it be in materials sourcing, service delivery, or waste and recycling management, sustainability is a necessity not an afterthought.

 

Businesses need to ask:

How are their materials sourced?

How are services being delivered?

How much waste are they producing?

Can they improve their recycling efforts?

Is there an opportunity to divert from waste streams?

Who can they partner with to help reduce their impact on the environment?

 

Leaders on corporate sustainability are making strides in a variety of ways-across all industry verticals. Accenture releases a Corporate Citizenship Report to keep itself accountable. Intel links a portion of employees’ compensation to solid waste recycling metrics (up to more than 75% of its total operations waste). Starting this year, Ford is partnering with McDonald’s to incorporate coffee chaff — coffee bean skin that comes off during the roasting process — into the plastic headlamp housing used in some cars. Texas Instruments reduces its potential environmental impact by sourcing materials responsibly and even recycling water from fabrication to feed its cooling towers. Eileen Fisher launched a “Waste No More” campaign to bring awareness to the importance of being more conscious of the massive environmental impact that the fashion industry continues to have on the planet. Barclays Center (a LEED Silver Certified stadium) donates furniture, composts, and has eliminated straws among other sustainability initiatives.

Thankfully, the research and technologies exist to help make a more environmentally responsible company a reality. Plus, the benefits aren’t just for the environment – customers will be happier, employees will be more engaged, and the organization will have stronger and longer-lasting growth.

 

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The State of Recycling Today

2020 Recycling Trends + Beyond

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.
  • 1 Yale
  • 2 Solid Waste Association of North America’s (SWANA) Applied Research Foundation (ARF)
  • 3 EPA
  • 4 Pew Research
  • 5 Salesforce
  • 6 B Lab (dba. B Corporation)
  • 7 IBISWorld
  • 10 PureCycle
  • 11 IBM
  • 12 AMP Robotics
  • 13 Pew Research
  • 14 EPA
  • 15 Euromonitor
  • 16 Stanford Social Innovation Review
  • 17 Fast Company
  • 18 New York Times
  • 19 Unilever