The U.S. recycling rate, including composting, reached nearly 35 percent in 2015, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), before contracting to 32.1 percent in 2018, the most recent year for which data are available. While substantial progress has been made from the 1960s, when the recycling rate was slightly more than 6 percent, the U.S. has not meaningfully increased this rate since the middle of the last decade despite the economic and environmental benefits associated with recycling. However, an effort by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, an affiliate of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, is attempting to change that.
Launched in 2017, Beyond 34: Scaling Circularity for a Sustainable Economy is a multistakeholder initiative that includes local governments, local chambers of commerce, technical partners and corporations. It is designed to advance the circular economy in cities and regions across the U.S. using a scalable model to identify and implement solutions that are designed to address local needs.
According to Beyond 34, “The goal of the initiative is to help communities, cities and businesses improve their local waste management systems and build sustainable local economies through the application of a three-phased model” that involves engaging stakeholders across the waste management value chain, identifying areas of greatest impact through analysis and empowering communities to implement solutions.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Corporate Citizenship Center oversees the Beyond 34 initiative as part of its Sustainability and Circular Economy portfolio. The Coca-Cola Co., Coca-Cola Consolidated, Kroger Co., Procter & Gamble, Dow, the Plastics Industry Association, Republic Services, Target, Walgreens Boots Alliance and the Walmart Foundation have provided funding to support the project since it was introduced five years ago.
“Both cities and regions and the private sector have a mutual interest in advancing the circular economy throughout society, and they can be great partners with one another, as well,” says Peter Fadoul, manager, sustainability and circular economy, at the U.S. Chamber Foundation. “We as the Chamber Foundation are quite adept at orchestrating those kinds of partnerships."
From analysis to action
Beyond 34 generally runs for a year in the selected city, Fadoul says. “Sometimes, we have to be flexible with analysis runtimes and sharing data and things like that,” he adds. “Sometimes, those things take time, especially between the public and private sector. So, we’re flexible insofar as the total timing, but it generally takes about a year.”
The program starts with an analysis of the waste stream, and Fadoul says, “Part of that is materials flow analysis, so we work with our technical partner, [Netherlands-based] Metabolic, in analyzing those communities’ waste streams with the help of the city leaders to determine what those kinds of main hot spots are in terms of waste in the city.”
He adds, “We bring our convening power and project management powers to their technical expertise, and we make a great match with them.”
While Beyond 34 began with a focus on recycling, Fadoul says it has expanded to consider the circular economy more broadly. “We can look at interventions across the value chain, whether it’s design, take-back alternatives, reuse models [or] composting, because the cities have diverse needs outside of just recycling.” However, he adds that recycling remains a heavy focus given it’s “one of the most important pillars in the circular economy.”
The projects also involve working with a core group of local project leaders who are representative of the circular economy value chain within the selected city. “It typically involves private sector brands that are dedicated to sustainability, many of which include our partners for these initiatives, like Walmart and Walgreens and Kroger and Procter & Gamble—obviously, being in Cincinnati, we partnered with those two—as well as Coca-Cola Consolidated,” Fadoul says of one of the two cities where Beyond 34 initiatives have been completed, the first being Orlando, Florida.
The rest of the targeted community is incorporated into the initiative using outreach such as seminars and workshops that the foundation hosts with the local chambers, local project leaders and private sector partners, he says.
“It’s very dispersed in terms of how many people we try to touch in each city to get as much feedback as possible on the kind of waste hot spots and how we can solve those, which plays into the second phase of designing these interventions, as we call them,” Fadoul says.
Metabolic contributes technical analysis in this phase, as do the stakeholders, to determine the projects that would be most viable and effective.
“And then we move into an implementation phase where we’re actually working with stakeholders on the ground to help implement those projects,” he explains. “What we do in the implementation phase is usually set up the project leaders for success and with the resources they need, and then those projects can kind of grow naturally on their own.”
Fadoul adds that project partners “do not just set and forget” with Beyond 34. Instead, he says, “They lend a lot of expertise and human resources to the effort to truly make it a public-private collaboration, which I think makes Beyond 34 really unique.”
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation does not work on policy design or recommendations directly, Fadoul says. “We focus more on the operations and implementation of things on the ground, rather than policy intervention.”
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation launched Beyond 34 in Orlando in 2017 in collaboration with Resource Recycling Systems, or RRS, of Ann Arbor, Michigan, with funding from the Walmart Foundation, Target, Republic Services and Walgreens.
In Orlando, Fadoul says, “We had a bit of a different approach where we were doing kind of more bespoke pilot projects.” This included working with The Recycling Partnership, Washington, to expand its Feet on the Street program. “This was probably one of our most successful initiatives in Orlando.”
Through Feet on the Street, volunteers go throughout the city, tagging recycling bins that contain contamination. However, Fadoul did not have information on how effective the campaign was.
In 2019, Cincinnati was selected for the Beyond 34 initiative.
“We realized through our analysis that much of the of the municipal solid waste coming from Cincinnati was in fact generated by the commercial sector,” Fadoul says. “There weren’t enough resources for employees of those commercial entities to feel empowered to take control of their waste at their companies and implement a circular economy.”
To address this, the foundation gathered a number of businesses together, including Kroger and the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International (CVG) Airport, to work with Hamilton County to develop an online interactive waste audit toolkit that instructs companies on how to run a successful waste audit.
The foundation also helped to set up a public-private consortium for recycling education in Cincinnati. Coca-Cola Consolidated and Procter & Gamble collaborated with the city of Cincinnati and Hamilton County on education-based initiatives. Fadoul says, “Hamilton County and the city of Cincinnati have a cycle through which they revise their recycling education strategies. And, now, they can tap directly into some of the private sector businesses there. Coca-Cola Consolidated has a ton of knowledge when it comes to recycling, given their products. The same with Procter & Gamble. It’s been really encouraging to see those groups get together and collaborate effectively.”
He says measuring Beyond 34’s impact on the recycling rate in Orlando and Cincinnati was “tricky,” adding that a “more robust metric system” has been established to track progress in the newest Beyond 34 communities.
In late 2021, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation announced that Austin, Texas, and Philadelphia would be the next cities to join the Beyond 34 initiative because of their commitments to sustainability and the opportunities that exist for significant economic and environmental impact through circular solutions in those cities. The expansion to these two cities was made possible by funding from Walmart.org and Walgreens.
In Philadelphia and Austin, Fadoul says the materials flow assessments were underway, but he mentions that electronics and textile recycling are areas of concern in Philadelphia that likely will be explored more deeply through the initiative. Fadoul says, “Perhaps more bespoke interventions will come out along those two waste categories.
“We’ll also be looking specifically at plastics, including flexible films, plastics [Nos. 1 and 2 and] rigid polypropylene,” he continues. “But that’s not to say that we’d be limited to those three categories, because the materials flow analysis is what guides us, so we’ll have to see what the data says.”
All are welcome
Fadoul notes that any city at any time can join the Beyond 34 effort by visiting www.beyond34.org/about/#s2 to access the Beyond 34 Framework and templates, though they would be doing so without the support of the foundation and its funding partners.
“In our work in Orlando and Cincinnati, one thing we did was create guidebooks to running the Beyond 34 process,” he explains. “It has a step-by-step guide on how to run Beyond 34 in whatever city at whatever time.”
Fadoul adds, “Having said that, with these new active regions, that’s where we invest more resources and our staff as well to help run the initiative and hold their hands through the process.”
Before the end of this year, the foundation intends to announce three more cities that it will work with directly, he says, selecting “communities that stand to benefit significantly from the Beyond 34 process.” Fadoul says these communities can “lack the analysis or the design projects to make an impact, but they have significant circular economy or waste or sustainability goals that have been set by the municipality, and they’re having trouble figuring out how they want to get there.”
Fadoul says the foundation also looks for cities with diverse demographics across different geographies to partner with.
The focus on diversity is intended to prove that Beyond 34’s approach can work in any city, Fadoul says. “That’s another strength of the program; we take our time to really get to know a city, get to know a region and find out what it needs.”
Additionally, he says the foundation looks for “regional readiness,” or a critical mass of leaders who are ready to help move the program forward “because it won’t be successful without the local project leader.”
Fadoul says the foundation is looking for cities that can benefit from a variety of interventions—from education to infrastructure to end market development—as well as the opportunity to further underserved communities. “For example, in Philadelphia, there are some impoverished kinds of districts in the region, and we are looking to use the circular economy as a tool for equity as well as sustainability.”
In addition to providing access to the Beyond 34 framework and templates, the foundation has created a Beyond 34 Recycling and Recovery Resources Hub in collaboration within the EPA’s America Recycles network, available at www.beyond34.org/resources, that any community can use for free. The hub is designed to be a comprehensive collection of tools, resources and best practices from leading circular economy, recycling and waste management organizations. Users are encouraged to submit additional resources.
Once the initiative has been completed in Austin, Philadelphia and the three cities that have yet to be selected, Fadoul says the foundation will “reassess where we’re at with the program and funding sponsors.
“Our aspiration is to hit every city and region in the United States and raise the recycling rate and advanced the circular economy throughout the U.S. So, we won’t do that until we hit scale. And this is kind of the first attempt at really bringing it to multiple cities at once,” he says of Beyond 34’s current round of funding. “We hope to be successful in this and then bring it to more cities after that.”