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An untapped source

Published: January 13, 2020


This article appeared in the December 2019 issue of Resource Recycling. Subscribe today for access to all print content.

Corrugated cardboard has been one of the most-recycled packaging materials for decades because the recovered fiber is a valuable feedstock for manufacturing new corrugated and paper products. According to the American Forest and Paper Association, the recovery rate of old corrugated containers (OCC) hit 96% in 2018, with most of the material collected from commercial sources.

However, major transformations in commerce, supply chains and end markets have begun to affect the OCC recovery stream. The e-commerce industry now exceeds $400 billion per year while retail stores are closing at a quickening pace. Credit Suisse, a major global financial services company, predicted that 25% of U.S. malls remaining in 2017 could close by 2022. The “retail apocalypse” has led to nearly 6,000 stores closing nationwide in 2018, and through early November 2019, retailers had announced closures of more than 8,600 stores this year, according to Business Insider. This trend shows no sign of letting up.

The implications for the corrugated packaging industry could be quite profound. Retail has provided a readily available and high-quality source of OCC and is the backbone of the industry’s supply base. But as brick-and-mortar stores decline, more OCC is shifting to e-commerce distribution centers and household residences. Recovery of OCC from residences is presently below 40% and poses greater contamination concerns. To continue maximizing OCC recovery, improved collection from residential sources will be necessary.

Last year, the Fibre Box Association (FBA) gathered industry leaders – including other industry trade associations, waste haulers and member companies – to embark on a collaborative effort to identify current challenges and opportunities for corrugated recovery. Resource Recycling Systems (RRS) was contracted to survey consumer attitudes about OCC recovery, interview industry thought leaders, conduct a literature review of best practices, and develop a series of actionable recommendations to increase the fiber supply and improve the quality of OCC being collected from residences throughout the U.S.

The inquiry exposed two areas where improving access to corrugated recovery could make a real impact: certain rural regions and multi-family dwellings. With this information in hand, the FBA authorized RRS to conduct a pilot program aimed at discovering best practices and recommendations for improving OCC recovery in the multi-family realm.

Untapped fiber sources

New multi-family housing construction is growing to meet increased demand for housing in and around city centers. That fact is shifting priorities for local recycling programs. Major cities in the U.S. view increasing multi-family recycling as vital to reaching waste goals and improving overall recovery rates. And jurisdictions around the U.S. are also now mandating the recovery of OCC.

Typical multi-family residents are millennials, who tend to be more environmentally conscious, and empty-nest baby boomers, who are experienced recyclers. Millennials are significant e-commerce consumers, with 96% shopping online (and 31% doing so at least weekly). Focusing extra attention on this group, often residents of multi-family dwellings, could yield considerable amounts of additional OCC.

Although approximately 94% of residences now have access to recycling, RRS’ survey found that a far lower percentage of people say they have “easy access.” In particular, multi-family households often have insufficient access to recovery, with clear and convenient container locations often not a reality. When asked why they don’t recycle, 44% of residents (all residents, not just multi-family) said it is easier to put the materials in the trash; 51% cited inconvenience and a lack of space.

Respondents also said they don’t get enough information about recycling in their buildings. Given relatively high turnover in these residences, more frequent outreach is needed, and in multiple languages. Based on survey results, the most effective tools available to increase recovery are more education and more reminders. Per the survey, millennials are more likely to get their information from social media and private websites and less likely to consult government websites and printed materials than non-millennials. Targeted education efforts should take millennial habits into account.

Multi-family pilot project in Boston

As a follow-up to the work summarized above, RRS was contracted by FBA to conduct a pilot program to test best practices for increasing OCC recovery in multi-family residences. The city of Boston is experiencing major growth in development of multi-family dwellings and agreed to work with RRS on the pilot effort.

Three buildings were selected for the pilot locations. The program consisted of two sets of communication tools that were delivered to residents via email and to residents’ doors. The communications were also posted at specific drop-off locations throughout the buildings. In addition, there were three face-to-face meetings between building managers, RRS consultants and city representatives at all locations. Other components of the project included a survey asking residents about the quality of their buildings’ recycling services and a tenant meeting at one location.

The first round of communication-tool deployment took place in mid-February and March of 2019, and the second round occurred on July 8, 2019. The baseline audit measuring OCC in the trash and OCC in the recycling was held Feb. 7-8, 2019 and a final audit was held July 18-19, 2019.

The following results were seen:

  • For one location, the recovery rate for OCC nearly doubled, from 46.3% in the baseline to 89.9% in the second audit.
  • At the second location, a luxury condo building, residents were already recovering 86.3% of OCC in the baseline. In the second audit, the rate increased to 97.6%.
  • For the third location, OCC recovery increased significantly, although exact measurements were more difficult to quantify. The baseline OCC recovery rate was 66.7%. The second audit could not be properly conducted because the “regular” truck picked up the recycling before the “special audit truck” arrived, so a true comparison could not be made. However, it was determined that while the trash quantity (weight) for the second audit increased by 85.3%, the amount of OCC in that trash increased only by 7.4%. Based on these results one could infer that a substantial portion of OCC was diverted to recycling.

There were some challenges related to the pilot, including:

  • Developing communications consistent with Boston’s current regulations was not simple. Wording and terminology designed by RRS to promote recovery also had to be consistent with city requirements, even if the city’s current outreach materials may have seemed contradictory. This was especially true for pizza box recycling.
  • Language was a major challenge. In Boston there are 120 languages commonly spoken, and at one of the pilot locations, roughly 50% of the residents spoke a foreign language. Translated communications were not permitted for distribution to the residents due to the management company’s interpretation of fair housing laws. Several other approaches were attempted to communicate to non-English speaking residents, but each effort met with legal roadblocks.
  • In general, people don’t want to read recycling instructions. For this reason, and due to the language barrier noted above, it was decided to use graphics wherever possible to convey the recycling messages.
  • Getting the attention of the building managers was not always easy. These are busy people often managing multiple buildings and dealing with many issues. However, they did have reason to support recovery efforts because trash collection is a cost to the buildings but recycling is not.

Takeaways can be applied elsewhere

Key learnings from the pilot initiative can be used to expand the program to other locations in Boston or to other cities.

First, clear and consistent communications that reach residents are vital to increase participation. In addition to the communications provided by the city, information specific to OCC was also posted at each recycling location. It is important to make messaging consistent with municipal requirements.

Simple, direct communications should include specific locations for recycling in each building and even by floor if necessary; instructions also can direct residents to empty all packaging materials and flatten the boxes. Asking residents to cut the boxes up is not realistic. Pizza boxes can be recycled as long as they are clean and relatively free of grease. It is also a good idea to survey the residents to understand the successes and failures of recycling efforts in each building.

Other lessons learned:

  • Language barriers are a significant inhibitor of recycling; try to avoid legal concerns limiting communications in the commonly used languages.
  • Building managers can be your eyes, ears and voice. Build relationships with them that will help increase recycling.
  • The same advice applies to municipal recycling coordinators who are tasked with managing a complex system. They appreciate assistance.
  • Talking to residents can be helpful as they can become “champions” to promote recycling.
  • Multi-family residents, especially in rental units, tend to be quite transient. Regular and frequent communications are vital to make sure the residents know the recycling rules and that recycling is “normal” and expected.
  • Design communication tools that are consistent with messaging for the recycler, but focus on key points and try to make the communication tool engaging.

Multi-family dwellings now represent 32% of all new construction in the U.S., and they are a popular housing choice for many millennials, who are also large users of e-commerce. Clearly, the industry needs to devote time and resources to get multi-family materials recovery right.

There is a vast and growing OCC supply available at multi-family buildings, especially if proven methodologies to increase recovery of OCC are utilized. So while ongoing changes are occurring in retail supply chains and reducing OCC collection from traditional commercial sources, there is a huge opportunity to make up that difference by increasing recovery from the residential recycling stream. In particular, the multi-family housing segment represents a collection source where OCC recovery can substantially augment the fiber supply.

Rachel Kenyon is vice president of Fibre Box Association and can be reached at [email protected]. David Refkin is affiliate senior consultant at RRS and can be contacted at [email protected].

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