The moment of waste disposal represents a choice between landfill purgatory and rebirth through recovery. It is the spiritual juncture in the life of materials. With each decision in favor of recycling, energy is saved; a virgin material is spared; and some portion of the earth’s crust is left undisturbed and supportive of life. Magnified to global proportions across 7 billion people, the ramifications of this choice are monumental. But as interested as I am in the world of recycling, I have difficulty associating the act of dropping a bottle in a bin with such grand impacts. No doubt, others face the same challenge.
This point in the supply-chain also represents a curious moment when the relationship between producer and consumer is flipped: recycling is an act of production, while disposal remains an act of consumption. Business typically feeds individual demand, but in the case of recycling individuals feed industry. The scale of these reversed material flows is almost unimaginably large. In Austin, Texas alone, where I am spending the summer on a fellowship through the Alcoa Foundation, we recycled nearly 500,000 tons of material in 2013. The potential exists to eliminate or capture a further 1,000,000 tons of waste.
Despite the great value and potential of recycling at both local and national scales, attaining high recycling rates is proving difficult. Few actions asked of individuals by public officials require such careful understanding and continuous engagement. For example: the complexities of electricity and water systems have been delegated to engineers, electricians, and plumbers. The rules of the road are taught to us from an early age, with a powerful enforcement arm ensuring compliance. Taxes are performed episodically, and there exists an army of specialists to assist us with this task. The exercise of responsible consumption and disposal choices is just as complex as these other systems, and we make these decisions every day, but often with little guidance.
The point is not to despair at the difficulty. Departments such as Austin Resource Recovery (ARR) are doing amazing work with modest resources. Every week, ARR is on-duty, collecting residential recycling, yard waste, and garbage. The expansion to single-stream recycling in 2009 has made it easier for residences to recycle. The recent passing of the Universal Recycling Ordinance makes it mandatory that all commercial entities and multi-family apartment complexes both recycle and compost. These are exciting and progressive accomplishments. But Austin has the goal of Zero Waste, by 2040, and it is obvious that we have a long way to go.
Leveraging the opportunities and recognizing the challenges presented above is necessary to increase Austin’s recycling rate from 30 to 90 percent. This task requires an understanding of the unique role resource recovery occupies in the supply-chain. And perhaps most importantly it demands that everyone participate. Continued effort to provide basic understanding of what, how, and why to recycle is necessary to pull in new participants and update veteran recyclers as the system evolves.
There is still low-hanging fruit for the taking. The most valuable materials in the waste stream–aluminum cans and plastic bottles–are still recovered at rates below 30 percent. The benefits of recycling are often not understood in any detail, and misperceptions about what is recyclable and where materials end up persist.
Additionally, research has shown that information and motivation alone are not enough to increase recycling rates. Appropriate infrastructure and complementary behavioral patterns are also necessary. Households need a recycling bin in every room. Public spaces need recycling adjacent to every garbage can. Composting solutions that mitigate foul odors and conserve household aesthetics must be advertised. The opportunity to recycle must be apparent and its practice must be effortless.
In an earlier era characterized by low population and an abundance of space, out-of-sight-out-of-mind may have been a viable waste management strategy. But the past of solid waste is gone, and our future of resource recovery demands engagement, resources, and visibility to reach the goal of Zero Waste.
Ben Morelli is a Master’s student at The Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. He is a student of sustainable material use, focusing on material product networks and lifecycle environmental impacts. This summer he is working with Austin Resource Recovery, through an Alcoa Fellowship, to improve citywide recycling rates in pursuit of Zero Waste. Outside of work he enjoys riding his bike in the Texas heat and cooling off in the refreshing waters of Barton Spring.