Re-imagining Recycling: We Are Our Own Best Infrastructure

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Recycling System

by Sarah A. Maine

The most contentious issue of the 201 Net Impact Conference’s opening keynote with Kim Jeffery, President and CEO of Nestle Waters, and William McDonough, of Cradle to Cradle fame, was the idea that bottled water is a convenience and that consumers should be able to choose bottle water over tap water if they are so inclined.  Jeffery framed it in terms of a trio of benefits that support lifestyle choices: health, convenience and style.  Dissenters in the audience argued that all three benefits could be had just as easily by filling a reusable bottle (full disclosure: I am in the latter camp).  This is certainly an important argument that should continue; companies in the business of bottling beverages, especially water, should be challenged to re-examine their packaging and the modes by which they deliver their product.  From what Mr. Jeffery was saying, it appears that Nestle is starting to wade into those waters.  What struck me as a crucial issue that was not adequately addressed was how to revitalize America’s fractured and partially efficient recycling and waste management infrastructure.

‘Infrastructure’ – it’s a word that is flying around a lot in the political, economic and environmental conversation these days, but what does it really mean?  As defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary ‘infrastructure’ simply means the underlying foundation or structure of a system.  When I heard Jeffery expounding on the need to develop the infrastructure of the recycling system in the United States, I wondered what he was envisioning.  I did not get a chance to ask him, and he was not very specific in his remarks, but I imagine it involves some kind of massive overhaul – complete with building out a standardized nationwide collection and processing system.  Although this may certainly be a long term strategy with plenty of merit, it doesn’t do very much for us right now.

I agree with Jeffery’s statement that the current system has reached its limit; it needs to be reshaped to optimize the rate at which valuable resources are captured from the waste stream.  He accurately described our current system as a ‘patchwork’ – an amalgam of recycling mandates, bottle bills and growing corporate self interest that are working together only in the sense that they are functioning contemporaneously.  Jeffery was also adamant that government does not have the will or the money to get to the bottom of the problem.  Here I have to disagree.  Excluding government off-hand is ridiculous.  Government isn’t going anywhere, and discounting it as a useful participant is like throwing away a huge batch of resources – a huge chunk of infrastructure.  Rather, the solution lies in re-imagining the roles of all the parties involved.  I don’t have a  definitive answer but I can suggest a place to start: finding out what the various parties are doing that works?

What is working for corporations?  What is working for government?  What is working for consumers?  On what level are everyday people engaged with recycling and diverting potential resources from the waste stream?   How does the experience of recycling affect the effectiveness of the recycling system?  This is where our infrastructure starts – with us.  I am a dedicated recycler, yet I am frustrated all the time by the experience of recycling – it doesn’t communicate the meaning of the overall effort back to me so that I can understand the impact of my individual contribution.

In contrast to the municipal recycling experience, a grass roots compost collection campaign in my neighborhood is extremely gratifying.  When I drop off my weekly stash of organic waste at the volunteer-run stand at my farmer’s market I am thanked and encouraged while my contribution is weighed and cataloged.  I feel useful and recognized.  I am not suggesting that waste collectors go around shaking the hands of random citizens, but I am suggesting that waste management companies and product manufacturers need to engage with their customers to let them know the precise impact of efforts to divert materials from the waste stream.  Some companies, like RecycleBank, are attempting to do so using financial incentives.  Although this may work in the short term, as a long term strategy it is limiting and unsustainable.  Information and interaction are more durable currencies in developing a community’s sense of it’s own impact.

People participate in large abstract systems when participation gives them meaning.   This is particularly true when it comes to dealing with unpleasant things like waste.  Around the globe marginalized social groups end up handling public waste, eking out a meager living in unimaginable conditions.  Cairo’s Zabaleen are one such group – historically they hauled waste from neighborhoods all over the city back to their own area, where they recycled up to 80% of the refuse by hand.  That is until recently, when the Cairo government, under pressure to modernize, hired a multinational waste management company to start picking up waste in the city and banned the Zabaleen from exercising their trade.  The multinational company recycles a fraction of the volume of waste that the Zabaleen did.  They are forced to stand by while their livelihood gets thrown ‘away’ before their very eyes.  The lifestyle of the Zabaleen is a dangerous one, I’m not trying to glorify it, but one thing that we could all take from their experience is their perception of waste as a meaningful component of their life.  Waste has meaning, and until we understand that we will not be able to manage it in a sustainable way.

I would like to put forward that we, regular people, are the best infrastructure for addressing the waste problem in this country.  As end users of the system we should be active participants in designing a better waste management system.  Our government and our corporations should ask us what we need to make the system viable in our communities.  Nestle Waters should ask its customers what they are looking for in a bottle recycling program.  I would like to suggest a revised trio of benefits to Kim Jeffery:  health, sustainability and meaningful participation.  Convenience will follow.

Sarah A. Maine is a graduate of Antioch University New England’s Green MBA program and Co-Founder of


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