MDB Insight Blog

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Will Your Community Support Alternatives to Recycling?

Most North American cities have been collecting recyclable material for many years. The majority of these items were sold to China for reprocessing, to be manufactured into new goods. But in 2017, China announced Operation National Sword, essentially ending the process.

The reason China stopped taking the material is that it was often contaminated, and therefore unusable. Starting in 2018, China only accepted non-contaminated recyclable materials that they can actually use. Since then, North America’s recycling collection has been piling up in storage warehouses, going to landfills, or being incinerated.

A cost-benefit analysis has illustrated a suspicion many municipal councillors have: since the profit potential has been drastically reduced, municipalities’ costs to participate in recycling schemes are becoming unsustainable.

Some materials are still being recycled, but the scale is much lower since processing facilities are few and far between across North America. Because of the inability to sell off a portion of the trash, costs are rising not just for recycling but also for trash pickup, especially since COVID hit.

COVID-19 has added extra complexity to the problem, with a huge jump in demand for single-use plastics and a significant increase in waste production from homes and healthcare facilities - not to mention the widespread challenges that an economic shutdown has caused, meaning less tax income for most municipalities.

Are There Alternatives to Recycling?

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According to the Manhattan Institute report, "Jurisdictions face a series of unappetizing choices: paying more to recycle less, or paying less but still seeing recycling goals not attained. The financial case for recycling that seemed strong not long ago has evaporated."

The report suggests three options for municipalities:

  1. Temporarily cease separate recyclable pickups, with the intent to begin again if or when market conditions change. Ending pickup means all recyclables would end up in landfills for the time being, while the municipality would pay lower disposal fees.

  2. Limit the types of recyclables picked up to those that bring the highest prices on the market, like aluminum cans. Have a compost facility? Limiting types of recyclables accepted is worth exploring.

  3. Cease recycling altogether, and reconsider in the future if things change. Ending a recycling program is likely to be controversial, not only because humans are emotionally attached to recycling, but also because they have a stigmatized belief about landfills now. It is also generally true that maintaining service is more affordable over the long term than stopping and later restarting a service.

The reality that municipalities face is that the positive environmental impact of local recycling is minuscule compared to the greenhouse impacts of larger-scale things. The cost-benefit report says that offsetting the cost of a single roundtrip flight between New York and London would require recycling about 40,000 plastic bottles.

Will Your Community Support Alternative Recycling Solutions?

The human factor in this equation is challenging. Western society has a relatively strong attachment to the idea that recycling our cans, bottles, and waste will help save the environment. People aren’t wrong, but there’s a little more nuance to the issue.

In theory, with an efficient recycling system where high-quality clean materials are collected, processed efficiently nearby, and put back into the production stream, recycling would have a significant impact on the shift towards a circular economy.

The unfortunate reality is that recycling is simply not feasible for many municipalities right now. You know there will be a significant backlash if your council abruptly announces that a recycling program is ending. So how do you broach the topic with your community?

It takes some delicacy, and the best way to start is with a bit of market research. Before developing a strategy to change or end your recycling program, find out what your community thinks of current waste management services.

With a tool like Citizen Satisfaction IQ™, you can quickly gauge their opinion on landfill services, garbage collection, recycling facilities, and recycling pickup services. With the feedback you receive, you can determine if your citizens would be interested in the council exploring different options to manage recycling, either temporarily or over the long term.

Find Out If Your Residents Support Alternatives to Recycling

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