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STATE OF RECYCLING: Confronting contamination

According to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), U.S. solid waste infrastructure currently scores a C+. This places it squarely in the “Mediocre, Requires Attention” category.

Not exactly a glowing review, is it?

But it’s not a shock, either. At least, not if you’ve been following the news lately.

bottles baled

In February, China banned the import of 32 categories of solid waste and imposed a 0.5% contamination standard on all accepted scrap materials, leaving municipal solid waste programs everywhere reeling. It has also exposed some inconvenient truths about our recycling system.

First among them, the c-word, AKA contamination.

Contami(nation): the root of the problem

Contamination is possibly the biggest threat to recycling across the United States and one of the primary reasons for the China Ban.

In a survey conducted by Waste Dive, policymakers across all fifty states agreed on one thing. Contamination needs to be addressed. Recyclables coming from the U.S. are filled with garbage. And like any bad product, nobody wants to buy them.

Developing the infrastructure to process the volume of recyclables Americans produce could take up to six years. In other words, it’s a long-term solution. But there’s something that can be done today—and it can improve the recyclables cities are turning out almost immediately.

Better waste and recycling outreach.

Improving your trash talk

Local governments are scrambling to find effective ways to communicate recycling best practices to their residents and put a stop to contamination. Some are building inhouse tools. Others are relying on third-parties to get the message across. But there’s no holistic solution. As a result, communities are further isolating themselves from the rest of the state, and without state oversight, they’re missing out.

The fact is, there’s never been a solution to recycling communications that could accommodate all levels of government without sacrificing the autonomy of municipalities.

Until now.

The State of New Jersey, the first state to mandate recycling in the U.S., recently launched a statewide recycling program with Recycle Coach. With it, they can now articulate a vision of recycling that unifies the interests of all levels of government inside the state, improving the delivery of solid waste information to residents.

Now, communities of all sizes, from the state’s biggest cities to its smallest boroughs, can deliver a consistent service, all while addressing one of the biggest issues in recycling today. Plus, the platform provides scalable analytics at every government level, proving return on investment (ROI). With actionable insights, stakeholders can evaluate program effectiveness, identify areas that need improvement, and ultimately take control of program outcomes.

Efficiency gains are also felt on the resident side. For the first time ever, residents can get information about what is and isn’t recyclable in their communities whenever, wherever. Recycle Coach makes information that’s critical to the success of recycling programs everywhere easily accessible. And because it’s been rolled out statewide, New Jerseyans can rely on it for information that comes straight from the source: their municipalities.

The platform also offers savings through economies of scale. Instead of going it alone, communities within New Jersey benefit from an affordable product through state channels, and with statewide communications infrastructure, they can take advantage of a familiar source of information for their residents.

The recycling industry’s survival hinges on residents knowing how to recycle. That’s the only way communities will be able to deliver a quality product. But that won’t happen without a wholesale improvement of the communications infrastructure underlying the recycling industry.

One of the ASCE’s key recommendations to raise the solid waste infrastructure grade included:

[Changing] the way Americans think of solid waste beyond “garbage” or “trash,” to understand that “waste is not waste until it is wasted.” The materials Americans routinely discard are potential resources.

At the end of the day, contamination is a behavioral issue. It’s one that arises from lack of knowledge. The best way to remedy it is to get to the source by communicating the correct information to residents in a way that’s most convenient to them.

If you’re curious to see if we’d be a good fit for your state, feel free to click the button below to learn more.


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We save people time and energy with intuitive digital tools that make recycling easy. Our goal is to be in every city, on every device, empowering communities to work together to waste less and recycle more. We’re recycling simplified.