Many U.S. cities are diverting more than 30 percent of their solid waste to recycling. Most communities have the potential to do far more using a variety of approaches.
Municipal solid waste (MSW) consists of common items we use and then throw away, ranging from everyday garbage, such as product packaging, food scraps, bottles and newspapers, to clothing, appliances, paint and batteries that are sent to municipality owned, operated or licensed facilities.
Fifty-five to 65 percent of total MSW generation is from homes, with the remainder coming from commercial and institutional locations, such as schools, hospitals and businesses. According to the World Bank, global MSW will increase from 1.43 billion tons per year now to 2.42 billion tons by 2025.
U.S. recycling rates for MSW have improved dramatically during the last few decades. From 1960 to 2010, the amount of solid waste that was recycled in the U.S. increased by 15 times. Yet, while recycling has increased significantly, solid waste generation also has grown exponentially, posing a challenge to the industry. Better solutions are needed.
Looking at best practices followed in cities, towns and municipalities in the United States and Canada can help identify proven solutions. Those solutions, tested in local communities, are the focus of this article.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), U.S. cities have gone from recycling 6.4 percent of solid waste in 1960 to 34.1 percent in 2010. Waste disposal in landfills has decreased from 89 percent of generated MSW in 1980 to about 54 percent of MSW in 2010.
Despite the rise of recycling practices since the 1960s, the amount of solid waste generated in our cities has increased almost 300 percent, and the United States now produces 50 percent more waste per capita than it did 50 years ago. In 2010, Americans produced about 250 million tons of trash, according to the EPA. In the face of reduced resources and stretched budgets, as well as government mandates and increasing public pressure, many municipalities are struggling to achieve recycling goals.
Improving the Bottom Line
Despite enormous and growing solid waste disposal needs, municipalities are increasingly recognizing that recycling can be cost effective. Proper disposal of solid waste can represent a net cost savings or, in some cases, can become a source of revenue that offsets handling costs at the local level.
Battery Recycling Day
In the state of Washington, more than 230,000 pounds of waste batteries were recycled in 2011—up more than 14 percent from 2010.
To raise awareness and encourage more participation in battery recycling, the city of Seattle in King County proclaimed June 28, 2012, Battery Recycling Day. City officials, environmental groups and the public turned out for the first city-wide battery collection drive, hosted by Call2Recycle.
Residents were invited to scour attics, junk drawers and desks for used rechargeable batteries—the kind used in cell phones, laptops and cordless power tools—and bring them to Seattle Center. More than 760 pounds of batteries were collected during the event.
For every ton of waste sent to the landfill, there could be a disposal fee. For every ton recovered, revenue can be earned. A shift is underway to view waste as an economic resource: materials that are recoverable, recyclable, compostable and convertible to green energy.
For example, in 2002, New York City, a national leader in recycling, decided to stop what it determined to be its least cost-effective recycling programs: plastic and glass. Yet rising landfill costs soon ate up the $39 million in expected savings. Furthermore, a 2008 study titled “Analysis of New York City Department of Sanitation Curbside Recycling and Refuse Costs” prepared for the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) showed that the city would save money by recycling those and other commodities.
As a result, New York City reinstated plastic and glass recycling programs and committed to a 20-year contract with a private recycling firm in 2004.
Automation streamlined the sorting process. Easy access to rail and barges on its waterfront facility cut both the environmental and transportation costs previously incurred by using trucks.
The new agreement and automated facility made recycling much more efficient for the city and its residents and it reduced the city’s carbon dioxide emissions by 500,000 metric tons—the equivalent of taking 338,000 passenger cars off the road each year.
“Recycling solves more than just our trash problem—it combats global climate change, saves money and recovers valuable materials that would otherwise have to be mined, logged or drilled,” Mark Izeman, senior attorney at NRDC and coordinator of the study, said at the time of the study’s release.
Just as for companies who originally put environmental sustainability on the expense side of the balance sheet, New York City’s experience proves that responsibly run recycling programs can actually save money, landfill space and the environment.
Many municipalities are able to offset some of their recycling costs through a variety of initiatives, and King County, Wash., provides one such example. While King County’s facilities are funded through a surcharge on solid waste disposal and wastewater discharge, the costs associated with processing some items are reduced by partnering with manufacturer-sponsored recycling programs. The average disposal cost is more than $75 per participant; however, residents using the facilities are not charged a fee on site.
Leading by Example
The following are examples of best practices in household hazardous waste (HHW) recycling from around the United States.
Best Practice: Consumer and Constituency Collection – King County, Wash.
When it comes to waste collection, convenience is paramount, according to many municipal recycling program directors. Along with collecting solid waste at their HHW or drop-off centers, some communities promote recycling on their websites by referring residents to a ZIP code locator for convenient drop-off locations in their communities for various materials, such as batteries, fluorescent bulbs and paint.
In King County, Wash., a Wastemobile travels to many communities and is parked at various sites for two to three days. This provides residents with a place to take their household hazardous waste that is more convenient than the permanent drop-off facility. Created in 1989, the Wastemobile was the first program of its kind in the nation. In 23 years of operation, the program has collected more than 14,000 tons of household hazardous waste from nearly 400,000 customers. In 24 collection events throughout 2011, the Wastemobile served more than 13,000 King County residents, collecting an average of 75 pounds of hazardous waste per customer for a total of 506 tons.
Best Practice: Household Hazardous Waste Events – St. Louis County, Mo.
Communities, especially those without permanent HHW facilities, often hold a series of collection events throughout the warm months of the year and typically pay a third party to conduct the event. The community then may be charged per pound for the material collected. King County, Wash., St. Louis County, Mo.; and Victoria, Texas, all have annual or semi-annual events, for example.
St. Louis County had held spring and fall collection events for household hazardous waste for many years. These events were very successful with significant participation by residents. Between the two events, as many pounds of rechargeable batteries were collected as would be expected during the course of a year from a county with its population. While St. Louis County has evolved its system and recently constructed a permanent collection facility, periodic collection events are a viable alternative that can also serve to increase awareness for recycling.
Some of these events are focused on electronics, which can be easily combined with battery collection. It’s natural for an electronics roundup, yet many such events are publicized without mentioning batteries, along with laptops, cell phones, e-readers and other electronics that contain them. Adding batteries to the list for these events can eliminate the confusion consumers have over how to dispose of them.
Best Practice: Internal Agency and Departmental Collections – Cedar Rapids, Iowa
Cedar Rapids, Iowa, as well as King County, collects rechargeable batteries from its municipal agencies and employees, such as the police department and road crews. Key to the success of this program is making it convenient for the battery users to participate and easy for the organization to administer and support. Each county office receives its own collection boxes, and employees can run their own programs without much centralized oversight. This saves time and money on planning and logistics and eliminates complications in program execution. When the pre-labeled boxes are full, they are shipped at no cost to a certified recycling facility. The county’s program partner reports on volume and content of recyclables.
Best Practice: Public Education – Victoria, Texas, and Sioux Falls, S.D.
Even those who want to do the right thing and recycle often don’t know which materials are HHW that need special handling or how to dispose of them. Providing this education is an important role for municipalities. Some programs offer public service announcements (PSA) to local media for their TV local news, radio and area newspapers. Other communities have success using advertising; St. Louis County for instance, runs ads in the local newspaper twice a year for its recycling events.
To increase recycling participation, Sioux Falls, S.D., conducted a multipronged campaign, including TV, radio, print and outdoor ads, a dedicated website and collateral. The campaign featured local community leaders as individuals committed to recycling with a call-to-action underscored by the question “Do you?”
The county’s “Residential Guide to Sustainability” brochure outlined the various materials that could be recycled and available services to do so. For example, Sioux Falls residents could visit the Reuse Room and once a month claim as many as five items turned in by other residents.
Other materials created by Sioux Falls focused on individual types of recyclables, such as the pamphlet on battery recycling. This community of less than one-quarter million residents collected about 2,000 pounds of rechargeable batteries in 2011. Its education efforts were a significant factor in its success, as were having convenient hours of operations for residents to use the HHW collection center.
As an example of direct communications with citizens, Victoria, Texas, conducted a mixed media campaign to promote its rechargeable battery recycling program to residents. Determined to create a sustainable recycling culture, Victoria used a combination of design materials provided by Call2Recycle to motivate battery recycling on Texas Recycles Day. The city promoted awareness about rechargeable battery recycling by including utility bill stuffers and encouraged more retailers to collect batteries. For one collection event, consumers who brought a power-tool battery for recycling at Lowe’s received a 25 percent discount on a new rechargeable battery that day. The campaign effectively reached 90,000 Victoria area citizens, with 106 business and retail outlets taking part. Business and retail outlet participation increased by 73.7 percent.
A variety of organizations and websites provide programs, information and resources to educate the public. The Global Recycling Network (www.grn.com/library/educational.htm) and the Curbside Value Partnership (www.recyclecurbside.org) offer various resources for communicating about recycling.
Corrections facility labor and mandated community service are used by some municipalities, such as Atlanta, to carry out sorting and packaging of recyclables. In some cases, this preserves recycling program budgets that might otherwise be slashed to pay for other local priorities. Battery sorting in Spokane, Wash., is staffed through the city’s work-release program, for instance.
Another alternative—and sometimes overlooked—source of funds is grants. For example, Victoria, Texas, received a grant from the state’s Commission on Environmental Quality via the Golden Crescent Regional Planning Commission for Waste in Place for curriculum materials to educate school children about recycling batteries.
As part of its long-term efforts to drastically reduce the amount of waste its 1 million households send to landfills (a 90 percent reduction by the year 2040), the city of Austin, Texas, recycled or reused 30 percent of the materials collected at its household hazardous waste (HHW) facility in 2011. This included the production of more than 8,000 gallons of Austin ReBlend paint, which is available to residents for free.
Also free to residents at the HHW facility are brand new or slightly used household chemicals, such as cleaning products, solvents, pesticides and fertilizers, that others have discarded.
The city also has innovative means of collecting some household hazardous waste. For instance, in addition to accepting batteries at its HHW facility, Austin collects them from a city-wide drop-off program using sites such as municipal buildings, retailers and other convenient locations. Sorted rechargeable batteries are then bulk-shipped to recycling facilities for free through GreenVantage, a program from Call2-Recycle, which helps municipalities offset a portion of the sorting and handling costs associated with preparing batteries in accordance with Department of Transportation (DOT) requirements.
Detailed reporting on collection totals with breakdowns by battery type and their downstream end-of-life management are important to Austin. The city seeks to use organizations recognized as e-Stewards by the Basel Action Network (BAN) and R2- (Responsible Recycling Practices-) certified recyclers such as Call2Recycle to assure participants that their materials are disposed of properly.
“There is a peace of mind that comes with the downstream recycling,” says Dawn Whipple, waste management program manager, city of Austin Household Hazardous Waste. “We know the materials are being properly handled and responsibly recycled, and that is important to the overall goals of the Zero Waste Plan.”
Improving Recycling Through Collection
Household hazardous waste, such as chemicals, paint and rechargeable batteries, that cannot be commingled with other recyclables present their own challenges in collection.
While some industries and manufacturers are doing their parts to support end-of-life product management, real success requires a partnership of informed consumers, retailers and municipal governments. Retailers and municipal governments must increase consumer awareness and make it convenient for everyone to reduce, reuse and recycle to ensure consumer participation.
When budgets are tight, schools, police protection and other essentials take priority, but many municipalities are expanding recycling by using creative methods to educate the public and improve collections.
While batteries are a small piece of the sustainability picture, they often are not recycled and, thus, present an opportunity to improve results through collection and source reduction.
Examples of rechargeable battery recycling can provide insight into how municipalities across the United States and Canada are gaining ground in their efforts to keep HHW out of landfills.
Also on the horizon is recycling for all consumer batteries, a solution that includes rechargeable and single-use (alkaline AA, 9V, D-cell, etc.) household batteries.
For the battery industry, U.S. product stewardship efforts currently focus on rechargeable batteries, but in the next few years this is expected to change to collecting all types of batteries, an established practice in Canada. Since most consumers do not distinguish between different kinds of batteries, a combined collection program eliminates confusion and makes it easier to participate. This should improve recycling rates for all batteries.
Some municipalities already are experimenting with collecting alkaline and rechargeable batteries within the same program. California’s Del Norte County launched a pilot project that allowed commingled collection of rechargeable and alkaline batteries in an effort to increase recycling. Collections during the pilot increased 3,000 percent.
The San Gabriel Valley Council of Governments, representing 31 incorporated cities and numerous unincorporated communities in Southern California, is another area in the United States where all types of batteries are collected for recycling. Surveys conducted in 2010 found that while 59 percent of citizens were aware of the state law banning batteries from household waste, 56 percent still threw them in the trash.
“We wanted to inform the community as to why throwing products like batteries and fluorescent lamps in the trash is illegal in addition to providing them with convenient recycling opportunities,” says Heidi Sanborn, executive director of the California Product Stewardship Council.
Batteries are picked up from participating retail locations, brought back to the HHW center and then sent to a certified recycling processor. Voluntary efforts to collect all consumer batteries seem to be gaining ground and will likely increase.
Extended producer responsibility (EPR) legislation is gaining momentum as more states enact regulations for the disposal of HHW such as paint, fluorescent bulbs and batteries. A strong argument for EPR for all types of material is gaining steam. Several factors—budget-strapped local governments, increased awareness among companies of limited resources and pressures from environmentally conscious consumers—are converging to make EPR more attractive and more commonplace in the U.S.
Governments are increasingly taking recycling for products such as electronics under their purview. EPR laws require manufacturers to finance the costs of recycling or safe disposal of their products.
Although 32 states have regulations governing the disposal of batteries, most focus on lead automobile battery recycling. Consumer battery recycling is typically voluntary. (A map of state by state requirements, as well as a summary of federal regulations, for the disposal of batteries can be found at http://www.call2recycle.org/recycling-law-map.)
Confronting growing solid waste disposal needs, many municipalities are effectively working to identify solutions. What can’t be understated is that the goal of zero waste is a long haul that must be embraced by all and viewed as a shared responsibility of industry and government.
Only a public-private partnership with shared responsibilities and realistic expectations, including a long-term commitment to change, will yield the best results. In the question of who bears the burden of ensuring proper disposal, the onus is shared—government, municipalities, manufacturers, retailers and consumers all have a significant role to play.
While increasing numbers of producers are addressing their responsibilities, these programs cannot replace the municipality’s leadership role. Additionally, as they institute these programs, governments must provide the infrastructure, such as collection centers or curbside programs, as well as promote recycling in their communities. None of these efforts, however, can be effective without educated, motivated consumers.
While the percentage and total amount of MSW being recycled has continued to increase at a rapid pace, the increases in the amount of MSW generated has created challenges for the municipalities that must properly dispose of corresponding increases in HHW. Forward-thinking municipalities have approached these challenges in creative ways, including responsible recycling in partnership with a third party, public education campaigns, new technologies and innovative collection methods as well as seeking new, alternative sources of funding for recycling programs.
As more and more municipalities face similar challenges with HHW disposal and recycling, the imperative to share best practices across communities becomes vital. Hopefully, the lessons learned from these examples and nearly two decades of rechargeable battery recycling can provide insight and ideas for the future. With the environmental impact of recycling end-of-life products so significant, the call to recycle is resonating now more than ever.
The author is CEO and president of Call2Recycle (www.call2recycle.org), Atlanta.