Deep in the Bins: A Look at Small Business Recycling Practices

I never thought that it would be easy to get small businesses recycling. A task like this requires more than simply distributing blue bins and registering businesses with recycling haulers. Through a fellowship with the Alcoa Foundation this summer, I’m experiencing the challenges first-hand.

GreenovateThough the city does not measure it, Boston’s commercial recycling rate is known to pale in comparison to its mediocre residential recycling rate of 19 percent. Anecdotally, local waste experts and businesses estimate that less than half of all businesses in Boston do any recycling at all, and those that do may only engage in periodic, material-specific recycling.

At the same time, the City of Boston has limited authority over commercial recycling practices. While the city manages residential waste contracts, businesses are left to their own devices. There is no universal approach to helping businesses recycle. This summer, I’m looking to change that.

I recently hit the pavement and spoke to store owners from Allston to Jamaica Plain and (almost) all neighborhoods between to enroll businesses in a recycling co-op pilot designed to reduce each businesses’ overall waste costs while increasing recycling rates in their neighborhoods.

The extent of the logistical challenges that reared their ugly heads was stunning. Of the dozens of business owners I’ve met, no two waste processes are the same. It seems that every owner has a personal story behind his or her waste practice, and the stories speak volumes about the savvy of different business owners, specific limitations within each neighborhood, persuasion of the customer base, and environmental awareness of the managers.

Consider the case of the Ill-Informed Manager. Just days ago I spoke with the manager of a popular Boston liquor store. Almost all of his store’s waste is cardboard—a material most recycling haulers will pick up at minimal cost because of its high resale value. With a trash bill of roughly $500 per month, this manager is paying over five times what he would pay a recycler to have the load hauled away. So one must wonder: how can Boston improve its channels of waste management education?

Next, we have the Cost-Conscious Owner. A South Boston bakery that has all the trappings of a conscientious vegan restaurant—bright walls, hipster art, chalkboard menus—does not recycle or compost despite its clear appeal to a green customer base. The barista, in slight embarrassment, told me that the manager simply does not want to pay for those services. If even the granola businesses won’t cover the cost of recycling, does a values argument for recycling have any standing?

I also met the Space-Constrained Manager, a pizza shop owner who prioritizes store space over nearly everything else. With no alley access for waste storage, she has daily trash and bi-weekly recycling pick-ups; she wishes she had more space for waste storage so she could cut costs by reducing the number of pick-ups per week. Though its historic city plan means narrow streets and few alleys, Boston is not unique in this sense. So how can a scalable program address the varied space challenges in urban areas?

Finally, the At-Home Recycler: down the street from the pizza shop, a home goods store owner opts to take her waste and recycling home in her car every day to deposit it in the residential waste stream. She stockpiles her cardboard waste in the store’s basement and, three times per year, a friend with a pick-up truck takes it all to an unknown location. With such niche approaches to waste management, how can the city measure commercial recycling rates?

These stories represent only a sliver of the vast array of waste approaches that businesses have adopted throughout Boston. Each store has its own bottom line, space constraints, and operating priorities that will trump recycling initiatives with conflicting requirements or considerations. It is clear that the challenge is to develop a program flexible enough to meet the myriad needs of each business, but also universal enough to be duplicated in a variety of industries and locations.

While some ideas have been put forth—the co-op, for instance—a few weeks on the street have offered me an important insight. In practice, the challenge is not so much the grand structure of a program, but it is the block-by-block, business-by-business flexibility of whatever program gets put in place. For a universal recycling plan to succeed it must be customizable for a wide range of priority sets and waste streams; we must find a way to aggregate all of these micro-problems into a single solution to the macro-problem: Boston’s low commercial recycling diversion rates.

Maryrose Myrtetus is an MBA student at The Yale School of Management. She studies the intersection between business practices and public policy as well as the application of the principles of innovation to entrenched societal challenges. This summer she is working with Greenovate Boston to improve commercial recycling rates by building a scalable, market-based co-op program. Outside of work she enjoys running along the Charles River.

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