The Earth911 recycling database consists of more than 130,000 listings, and I used to be in charge of it. These listings are made up of city and county locations, retailers with drop-off bins, and curbside and mail-in programs. It’s a huge, ever-evolving directory that requires constant attention.
During the time I managed the recycling database, I went through what I would call a crash course in recycling. I learned more about the recycling industry than I ever thought possible. And while I still feel as though I have so much to uncover about this complex industry, there are three lessons I have learned that I would like to share with you.
1. Communication Is Key
While managing the Earth911 database, I had the chance to speak to many people who were searching for recycling solutions in their area.
Often, their city actually allowed them to recycle the material in question in their curbside bin or they had a local drop-off point listed on their website. They just couldn’t find the information. In my experience, many cities simply do not effectively communicate to their residents about the recycling options they provide.
A chunk of the information on the Earth911 database comes from city websites. As a result, I’ve spent hours and hours digging through city and county websites trying to find recycling info.
City websites are notoriously bad. I swear some of them haven’t been updated since 1999. They are also packed with information, resulting in navigation menus that stretch off the screen. Often I would have to click on link after link trying to find the city’s recycling page.
Many cities need to do a better job of getting this information in front of their residents so they know what recycling options they have in their area. Brands also need to do a better job informing their customers how to recycle their products.
Fortunately, there is some progress being made on this front with the How2Recycle label. Many major brands are adopting this labeling system that clearly communicates if and how a product can be recycled.
2. Manufacturers Need to Take Responsibility
While brands need to do a better job communicating how to recycle their products, they also need to take greater responsibility for the products they manufacture.
When companies are planning new products, they should take time to plan the entire lifecycle of the product. Electronics are a perfect example of this.
For years and years, people purchased CRT TVs. These products seem to have been made with absolutely no thought about how to dispose of them at the end of their lives.
In order to recycle a CRT television, a person has to manually unscrew the TV and take apart various components. It’s a slow process and extremely labor intensive. Because of this, if you want to recycle your CRT TV, you’ll probably have to pay a fee. Recycling is a business (more on this later), and as such, if it isn’t making the recycling company money, they aren’t going to do it.
Fortunately, there are some brands that are designing their electronics with recycling in mind. Samsung won an award for this in 2016 for one of their TVs. The TV is made with fewer screws and more snap-on components, making it possible to disassemble in less than 10 minutes.
Last year, Apple introduced a robot, Liam, that is capable of disassembling an iPhone for recycling. This makes it faster and easier to take apart old phones and recycle the components that can be used in new phones.
Electronics, of course, aren’t the only product with this issue. Companies routinely create products with zero thought about how to recycle them. Satellite dishes are another great example. At Earth911, we get requests almost daily from people wanting to know how to remove an old satellite dish from their roof and recycle it.
The companies that make these and sell them to customers provide no support on how to recycle them. (If you have this problem, we wrote an article just for you on how to recycle your satellite dish.)
If we want to improve our recycling rate, companies need to take greater responsibility for the products they sell, and they need to design with recycling in mind.
3. Recycling Is More Complicated Than You Think
Before working at Earth911, I really didn’t understand how the recycling process works. While Earth911 doesn’t run any recycling facilities, they do run one of the largest recycling databases in the U.S. — this gave me the opportunity to get an inside look at how the recycling industry functions.
Like I mentioned earlier, recycling is a business, and if that business isn’t making money, recycling will decrease. Recycling companies sell commodities to manufacturers. Those commodity prices determine how much money a recycling company makes.
A significant drop in commodity prices can cause recycling companies to go out of business. In order for most recycling programs to be profitable, they also have to charge the city or county for recycling.
An excellent example of this issue playing out in the real world occurred in South Carolina in 2016. The glass recycler servicing several South Carolina counties found that the program was no longer profitable, so they stopped accepting glass.
This left counties scrambling to find another solution, which has been difficult. While they continue looking, many of these counties have had to send their glass to the landfill.
As companies and cities work on improving the issues outlined above, we will see an increase in the recycling rate in the U.S.
Overall, managing the recycling database taught me that while there are many challenges facing recycling, they are not insurmountable. There is always a solution, and fortunately, there are many talented people who are working on it.
Feature image courtesy of Shutterstock