I recently celebrated my five-year anniversary of working at Earth911. That is a long time to work at any company, but the experience has been extra interesting for me because I’ve gotten to see such a huge shift in the business of recycling.
For longtime Earth911 followers, you may know me as the guy obsessed with writing about tire recycling. Newer recycling enthusiasts may recognize me from my cinematic endeavors on waste. But my main role at Earth911 is overseeing the recycling directory that has been answering the question, “How do I recycle locally?” for over 20 years.
The answer to this question is dramatically different than it was years ago, both because of emerging recycling markets and the types of products we are looking to recycle. For consumers navigating the challenging world of recycling, no one presents this information better than Earth911.
Our directory hits lots of milestones, the most recent being that we surpassed 1.5 million U.S. recycling opportunities in June. That represents 50 percent growth during the last year, and I think most companies in America would be satisfied with 5 percent growth these days.
But how do you reach 1.5 million recycling opportunities? After all, there are only 43,000 ZIP codes in the United States, which would mean an average of nearly 35 per ZIP code. Let’s take an in-depth look at how this expansion came to play.
I don’t know about you, but when I buy products at the store, they are rarely made of just one material. They have a container, a lid, a product label and any external packaging (e.g. shrink wrap), and all these materials have different recycling markets. It’s not feasible to communicate recycling information for this product as a whole, because different recycling programs will accept different components.
What Earth911 was noticing when communicating the rules of local recycling programs is that many common phrases appeared, such as “Please remove caps” and “This program accepts bottles only.” At the same time, new programs emerged that specialized in collecting materials undesired by many curbside programs.
In 2011, we addressed this change in the business of recycling by adding over 80 new searchable packaging materials to the directory, including 36 materials just focused on plastic. Now our directory lets you identify exactly what you have and find local recycling options, limiting the chances of contamination.
A second round of material expansion in 2011 addressed the growing disposal challenge of electronic waste. With new technology released every day, the need for recycling of new product types increases. We added 19 new electronics materials, covering everything from new potential e-waste (e.g. Tablets) to further clarifying existing materials (e.g. turning Televisions into CRT Televisions and LCD Televisions, since the recycling market is different for both).
We plan to undertake another round of material expansion this year, while providing recycling coverage for any new added materials. Hopefully you’re already seeing a difference in the directory user experience.