How can recycling players be sure their material choices aren’t damaging other links in the recovery chain? One industry collaboration has developed a resource to help.
The ASTRX initiative from the Sustainable Packaging Coalition and The Recycling Partnership recently released a one-page guide for packaging management decision-makers called “Navigating the Recycling System.” ASTRX, launched last September, stands for Applying Systems Thinking to Recycling.
The tool breaks down the packaging recycling loop into five areas: manufacturing, reprocessing, sorting, collecting and engaging consumers. It then lays out the key questions stakeholders in each realm should be mulling as they make choices about their programs and products.
The ultimate goal, organizers say, is to ensure all packaging materials directed toward recycling actually find end markets.
It’s a straightforward look at an increasingly complex environment. And to better understand how the industry should use the document, we reached out to Dylan de Thomas of The Recycling Partnership and Trina Matta of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, who lead the ASTRX effort for their respective groups. (Disclosure: Dylan de Thomas is the former editorial director for Plastics Recycling Update.)
Who exactly should be looking at this document and what should they be taking away from it?
Trina Matta, Sustainable Packaging Coalition: We hope people will use this to better understand the full scope of the recycling system and think beyond their piece of the recycling system. We want people who are designing packaging to think about how consumers interact with the package, but also how the [materials recovery facility] handles it and what end markets need. We want people who are building or changing local government collection programs to think about how they can design a program that works for reprocessors as well as for their residents.
Dylan de Thomas, The Recycling Partnership: We all know that the material mix is ever-evolving, and we wanted to produce something that helped highlight some of the challenges new packaging or materials might face moving through the recycling system. I’d also like to add that we welcome feedback from stakeholders – depending on what aspect of the recycling industry you’re working in, you’re going to be looking at all of this through a different lens. We’d love to hear from anyone out there as to what needs the most work.
It’s interesting that market demand is positioned as the first thing to think about when approaching recyclability. Has that issue not been emphasized enough in the past?
Trina Matta: This point has been emphasized a lot within certain circles of the recycling field, but that doesn’t mean that everyone has internalized that message, or that everyone understands exactly why it’s important. This tool tries to clarify why packaging design choices and consumer education can impact end markets.
Dylan de Thomas: We put it there at the top to illustrate how important end markets are to the recycling industry. Simply put, if there isn’t a market for a material in your curbside recycling cart, then why is it in there? If it’s not being bought and turned into a feedstock for manufacturing new goods or materials, then it doesn’t matter, right? End markets for recycled products should be a crucial part of any conversation about recycling.
A lot of the projects that get industry attention deal with innovation — for example, developing technology to handle material for which no recycling markets exist. Is ASTRX saying that kind of thing is misguided? Should the focus instead be on developing products that can be easily diverted and sold into existing markets?
Dylan de Thomas: Innovation in the recycling industry is integral to its success. The technological advances that have come along in the last decade-plus have been key to adding new materials to the material mix. But you need to know where you are before you start taking those steps.
Trina Matta: What we’re saying is there are materials that can go through the recycling system as it exists today with relative ease, materials that can go through the system in some but not all situations, and there are materials for which some sort of innovation or intervention is needed before they can go through the recycling system successfully. We need to recycle more of each of these types of materials, but the approach to getting more has to be different depending on whether you’re working with PET bottles or something that’s a little harder to recycle. This tool helps you understand which of these groups your packaging type falls into, so that you can understand better what the next steps are to recycling more of it.
What was the process like to develop this? Between your two groups, you have a lot of stakeholders with a lot of needs.
Trina Matta: Since this was the first product we worked on together, we had to learn each other’s organizational culture and how best to communicate with each other. There was a lot of back-and-forth to make sure that all perspectives were included and that we understood how each team thinks.
Dylan de Thomas: I also want to give credit to my teammate Liz Bedard, who works with both the Partnership and the Association of Plastic Recyclers and who initially developed the tool. She workshopped it with both our Technical Committee, a group of industry experts from various levels of local, state and federal government, as well other aspects of the recycling industry, and our MRF Working Group, which has representatives that make up three-quarters of the capacity of the top 70 MRFs in the U.S.