Significant new industry initiative to push recycling forward

Significant new industry initiative to push recycling forward

By Editorial Staff, Resource Recycling

Under the banner of Action to Accelerate Recycling, nearly 80 corporate, trade group, environmental and governmental leaders met for two days last week near Dallas to devise a plan to push recycling levels higher.

The event was sponsored by Alcoa and was produced with the assistance of other "Founders Circle" firms and groups, such as Waste Management, Owens-Illinois and the National Association for PET Container Resources. The attendees represented more than 70 percent of the soft drink industry, 90 percent of the glass container market and all of the aluminum cansheet industry. Executives from paper and plastic recycling firms were also at the meeting, as were those representing recycling collection and processing firms, and local and state governments.

The goal of the working meeting was to produce a plan to boost recycling rates by 20 percentage points in three years. Attendees were asked to consider ways to make "recycling the social norm, not the exception."

Participants we interviewed were generally supportive of the efforts of Alcoa and its partners. Similar initiatives have been undertaken by organizations, such as the National Recycling Coalition, but, "this is the first time such a project has been led by a company," noted one attendee. A beverage industry veteran said that "Alcoa deserves credit for pulling this together," while another attendee said, "I greatly appreciated the organizers' efforts."

That's not to suggest that the event was a love-fest. One of the executives we interviewed said that "knowing the challenges of consensus, opposing missions, disagreement, level of decision-making authority, experience … this process will take a while."

One attendee summed it well for the other attendees we interviewed. "Compared to a lot of voluntary initiatives I've seen over more than a dozen years, this meeting was different. Alcoa made a very conscious effort to get companies throughout the supply chain together to talk not just about containers, but other packaging and paper. What was also different was that there were 'rates and dates' specified, such as a 20-percent increase in recycling by 2015 in non-deposit states. That helped focus the discussion on how to direct resources from industry to things that would get measurable results. It was not just a discussion about how to 'raise awareness" or 'promote recycling.'"

Several attendees noted that the growing governmental and corporate fervor for expanded recycling provided significant momentum for the meeting. This led to "good representation across the supply chain and very engaged participants," said one industry veteran.

That said, several participants noted that the agenda was "too ambitious" and because the attendees had various levels of understanding about municipal waste recycling, "responses were all over the board."

In terms of the options considered at the meeting, legislative concepts, such as extended producer responsibility (EPR) and container deposit systems, were taken off the table, even though EPR and deposit-system proponents were in attendance. One attendee said that "for some of us, our hands were tied behind our backs" by restricting the discussion to voluntary efforts. A key reason for not considering these options is that the goal was to develop a plan to boost recycling by 2015, which new EPR and deposit laws in 2013 or 2014 would not do. But the limitation in options pushed attendees to consider other ideas. "Taking this [EPR and deposits] off the table challenged the meeting," noted one expert.

Nearly everyone we chatted with applauded the project. "We looked at new ways to talk to consumers, which I found fascinating," said one key leader. "The willingness to look at many, many options was encouraging," said another participant. One widely-respected organization leader said "the breadth of the issues and challenges raised by the participants, all on target, made a compelling case for the need for stakeholder collaboration to move recycling forward in this country."

In the hopes of moving the ambitious plan from the conference hall to the curbside, "small groups [were formed and] identified specific steps to address outreach, residential collection obstacles, public areas, and capacity development," reported one attendee. From there, he said that "teams were established which will report back to the group in 30 days for the development of a master plan to achieve the identified goal of 20 points in three years."

The meeting facilitators have asked participants to work in separate groups to develop timelines for future outcomes. In terms of the likelihood of success for the Action to Accelerate Recycling initiative, one participant crisply noted that "the opportunity is there for the willing." However, one key player noted that a number of attendees remained hesitant to predict that an expanded promotion in itself will push recycling rates to lofty levels. The debate is likely to continue. As one respected official noted, for some participants, "a default reliance on 'education and outreach' as a primary strategy seemed out of step with the structural needs to revamp the whole system."

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Community Based Social Marketing

I am curious if there was any discussion on the approach that will be taken to frame the outreach in a way that utilized the principles of CBSM. It has been shown that distributing information alone does not increase recycling behavior from those who do not already recyle. If the strategies proposed rely solely or mostly on  educational information then the goal of 20% in 3 years will not likely be met. See

Jennifer Jarland