Last year’s shakeup in the global recycling market left cities across the U.S. scrambling for alternatives, and now it looks like the answer is at hand. The National League of Cities has just released a new recycling guide that comes down firmly on the side of the circular economy, and suggests a localized approach to recycling and waste recovery.
Called Recycling Reimagined, the new guide incorporates recycling into the broader context of zero waste and the circular economy.
In a conventional economy, expediency and financial considerations drive waste handling. As a result, much of the trash generated by a community is gone forever — either incinerated or sent to a landfill.
A circular economy prioritizes the best use of materials and resources. With zero waste the ultimate goal, circular economies combine reuse, regeneration and recycling.
According to the new guide, cities could realize the benefits of a circular economy even before the zero waste goal is met:
“The benefits are manifold. A 75 percent diversion rate by 2030 could produce 1.1 million new jobs and reduce carbon dioxide by 276 million tons, as well as save billions of dollars.”
That description may seem a little too rosy for some critics, considering that the overall recycling and composting rate in the U.S. was only 34 percent as of 2015.
Nevertheless, the numbers back it up. The guide notes that the composting and recycling rate was only 6.4 percent in 1960. Now, they can play a key role in public and environmental health for cities:
“In 2017, the U.S. recycling and reuse industry accounted for:
534,000 stable jobs
$30.6 billion in wages
$117 billion in economic activity and
$8.2 billion in state, local and federal tax revenues.”
In that context, the amount of non-recycled waste represents an opportunity and a challenge.
According to the guide, as of 2014 the U.S. generated 136 million tons of non-recycled waste, which ended up costing $6.8 billion to dispose.
Food waste alone accounts for a significant, recoverable resource. According to the guide, as of 2014 the U.S. generated 39 million tons of food waste, and the recovery composting rate was just 5.3 percent.
Using case studies from several U.S. cities as well as Copenhagen, Denmark and Vancouver, Canada, the guide focuses on concrete actions that yield quick results.
The case studies reveal common denominators that simply make plain common sense.
A successful zero waste program sets fact-based goals, engages the public continuously, and leverages municipal purchasing to promote the desired products and markets:
“Minimize single-use products and embrace single-material products that are most easily recyclable and compostable. Many cleaning products such as soaps and detergents are available in natural and biodegradable formulas that have minimal impact on municipal drinking water quality and treatment.”
Streamlining regulations, finding innovative ways to finance infrastructure and technology improvements, building partnerships and engaging regional support are among the other key elements.
One recommendation that may spark some controversy is a reliance on incineration as an alternative to landfilling.
That’s not an optimal solution, but it does provide for at least some degree of waste recovery in the form of energy generation.
In addition, a properly designed waste-to-energy facility can provide for the post-incineration recovery of metals and other materials.
The report’s case study for Phoenix, Arizona demonstrates the potential for enlisting entrepreneurs and stimulating economic activity within a few short years.
The city embarked on its zero waste journey in 2014, when the recycling and rate was just 20 percent. In addition, compostable material accounted for almost half of the entire waste stream.
Phoenix partnered with Arizona State University to launch an R&D center called the Resource Innovation and Solutions Network, which in turn hosts an eco-industrial incubator for zero waste businesses called the Research Innovation Campus.
The first tenant at the campus is a company that will tackle a significant local waste problem — palm fronds — by converting them to livestock feed.
That company sets the tone for taking on other challenges in the waste stream, including carpeting, foam, latex paint and treated wood.
As for Starbucks, the company is among those recognizing that the circular economy is inevitable. If they don’t take the lead, somewhere down the line they will have to deal with government regulations.
Image credit: National League of Cities
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.
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