What is recycling? Last week a number of industry leaders tried to come up with a clear and concise answer.
During a National Recycling Coalition board meeting, top recycling advocates engaged in a lively debate on the group’s working definition of recycling and its potential implications. As part of NRC’s policy and advocacy work, the group is attempting to clarify what it views as recycling and what, by extension, it views as disposal.
The meeting, which took place during the 2014 Resource Recycling Conference in New Orleans and was attended by a Resource Recycling reporter, also featured a special guest, author and sustainability leader William McDonough. After delivering the conference’s keynote address alongside Walmart’s Rob Kaplan, McDonough agreed to sit in on NRC’s meeting and offer his insight on the group’s draft definition of recycling, which had been in the works for several months.
NRC representatives had defined recycling as “a series of activities by which material that has reached the end of its useful life is processed into materials utilized in the production of new products.” McDonough suggested a slightly broader alternative: “Recycling is a series of activities by which resources that have ended their current use are reprocessed and made available for the creation of new products to be used in the marketplace.”
Those two definitions may seem nearly identical, but the nuanced distinctions were enough to create a town hall-esque back-and-forth as the board meeting progressed.
During the hour-long exchange, many argued the NRC definition was problematic in its implication that all materials that are recycled have indeed “reached the end” of their useful life — many materials, members reminded other members, are recycled despite being perfectly useful.
Others argued that the McDonough-inspired definition was too widespread in its use of “resources” instead of “material.”
“You could recycle water, but we’re meaning to talk about waste,” Susan Collins of the Container Recycling Institute contended. Jay Bassett, who also sat in to offer insight from the federal EPA, offered a strong warning on the use of “resources” instead of “materials.” He said that “there are regulatory meanings to these terms,” and that the use of “resources” could open the door to free-wheeling implications.
At one point Robin Wiener, president of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, urged members to consider brevity and clarity above all else. “Simplicity is critical here,” she said. Stephen Bantillo, who worked with Fran McPoland on shaping the original definition through extensive stakeholder and member outreach, added, “We want the shortest elevator speech we can come up with.”
For his part, McDonough stressed that he was “here to learn” and, after hearing Wiener and Bantillo’s comments, happily ceded “it sounds like a good idea to use materials [instead of resources].”
Beyond the single definition itself, the group is also formulating positions on hot button topics such as “one bin” processing and waste to energy. Neither approach, at least for now, is deemed recycling by the group, according to a draft notice reviewed by Resource Recycling.
By meeting’s end, the group managed to settle on an amalgam of the two definitions, settling on the following description: “Recycling is a series of activities by which material that has reached the end of its current use is processed into material utilized in the production of new products.”
After the meeting, Mark Lichtenstein said the “lively debate” was a sign that “the old NRC was coming back.” That perspective was one he also espoused in NRC’s annual meeting the day before.
During that meeting, NRC leaders briefed a room of more than 35 members, including a dozen or so board members, on NRC’s goings-on over the past year. While the group has been relatively light on headline-worthy news, bringing out a series of webinars and working on completing the merger of RONA with NRC, Lichtenstein reiterated that “we continue to grow.”
“Be patient with us,” Lichtenstein said at the meeting with members. “This organization will survive. The question is: What will it look like?”
Surviving was once a major question mark for NRC, especially when Lichtenstein took the helm of the group in 2010. At the time, the group was more than $1.5 million in debt. Last week, NRC officials said NRC had about $85,000 in cash and cash equivalents as of March 31, 2014.
NRC’s annual budget is $86,000, the group has $98,000 in assets and $190,000 in a trust fund, the group reported.