The end of recycling?

Cutting curbside collections will overload landfills, create environmental crisis

CURBSIDE RECYCLING PROGRAMS are disappearing in Massachusetts. Our Commonwealth has made the absurd decision to dump thousands of tons of recyclable materials into landfills. Recycling infrastructure is approaching its breaking point, and the slow response from our public leaders is due to a conspicuous lack of resources to prevent this crisis.

Indications of this systemic failure have been present for some time. Losing curbside recycling is the natural conclusion of a profound economic shift domestically; a precipitous change in the commodities markets globally; and an underfunded state government locally.

Over the past two decades, the US economy has recast itself from a location-based, retail marketplace into a direct-to-consumer enterprise. Think weekly meals from Blue Apron, shaving supplies from Dollar Shave Club, mattresses from Casper, and everything else from Amazon. This new look goes beyond slick advertising and millennial-friendly branding. It’s a huge shift in the way we buy products.

Major brands are realizing this trend and adjusting their strategies to match the demand. This has a significant impact on the global environment and our local communities. With more materials in our homes, we are paralyzed between making a sustainable choice to recycle and our limited knowledge of how best to go about it.

Recycling services now suffer from what are called aspirational recyclers – individuals who feel compelled to act sustainably, but place currently non-recyclable materials into their curbside bins (such as electronics, food waste, or plastic bags) with the optimistic thought that “someone will figure it out.”

Unfortunately, someone has figured it out.

China, the place where most of the planet sends their recyclable commodities, has effectively closed its doors. Last year, the Chinese government severely restricted the intake of soiled and inappropriate items, under what is known as the “National Sword” policy, because these materials interfere with traditional processing methods for recyclables.

With too many contaminants in our recycling commodities, vast tonnages have stalled on our shores and prompted the inexcusable choice to divert these materials into landfills.

China’s decision to choke off the flow of materials deeply upsets a delicate balance in our own environmental policy. The cost to divert recyclables around China’s National Sword to find new end markets has made Massachusetts’ curbside collection markedly more expensive. Town administrators, public professionals, and elected leaders are now viewing their recycling programs as ripe for elimination. When faced with cutting education in favor of funding an expensive waste diversion contract, it’s doubtful any public official could make such an extraordinary choice. Nor should they.

This policy relativism plays a key role in our politics. Followers of state government will recognize this zero-sum decision-making when it comes to Massachusetts’ environmental agencies. Investing in necessary social services at the expense of fighting climate change is just one of the distinguishing characteristics of our policy-making. It is a challenge that has yet to favor our environment, but it is hard to argue with the underlying logic when opioid addiction, economic insecurity and rising health care costs so gravely affect the lives of vulnerable populations.

Nevertheless, the presence of climate change has never been more prominent in the history of human civilization. Can we blame the Chinese government for wanting to move itself out of an industrial revolution and into a more advanced, climate-friendly economy? Focusing on their own sustainable future is notable not just for its earth-saving implications, but for elevating climate change to the level of social imperative.

Our reality is quite different. We excuse our inaction on climate change with the aforementioned relativism and in so doing, we shirk our responsibility to future-proof our rapidly deteriorating ecosystem.

Environmental agencies are therefore starved for resources due to this instability. Fewer funds are directed toward educating consumers on the best ways to recycle. Businesses ignore their responsibility to be proper stewards of the environment. And although socially conscious non-profits make courageous attempts to fill these gaps, donations are spread thin in a battle against climate change denial emanating from Pennsylvania Avenue.

Global and domestic forces do not have to end recycling if we can find ways to support and expand it. To do that, public agencies tasked with combating climate change should no longer be undervalued, underutilized or forced to suffer the indignities of investment elasticity.

For this reason, I have been involved in a non-profit organization that is dedicated to disrupting policy inertia by partnering with forward-thinking policymakers. MASSRECYCLE understands that increasing access to sustainable practices to reduce, reuse and recycle our post-consumer goods is a critical element in reversing climate change.

Our latest program envisions a bold investment in recycling infrastructure. When consumers have recycling options available to them at work, on their commute, or in public areas, studies have shown that individuals are predisposed to make more sustainable choices in their personal lives. Increased access to recycling has a proven multiplier effect. Recycling is the catalyst for sustainability.

To ensure that our Commonwealth is doing everything it can to cultivate this mindset, MASSRECYCLE has partnered with the MBTA to place single-stream recycling kiosks at Red Line Stations in Cambridge and Somerville. These kiosks currently stretch from Alewife to Kendall Square and are as noticeable to commuters for their separated waste collection streams as they are for their poster-size advertising opportunities.

This pilot project takes advantage of the recycling multiplier effect and provides additional revenue for our public transit system (another sustainable infrastructure in need of attention and investment). Advertising on these kiosks can generate millions in revenue for the T while commuters are simply doing the right thing for the environment.

MASSRECYCLE is doubling-down on our commitment to sustainability by focusing our efforts to expand this program throughout the MBTA system and finding new partners to launch recycling options in public parks, playgrounds and other public assets.

This choice is made as a direct challenge to the recycling threat in the Commonwealth. No doubt a parallel response should be made by our state leaders.

It may be foolish to hope that we will stop underfunding our environmental agencies and expect that predictable crises will be averted. Given that even small investments can educate well-intentioned, but misguided, aspirational recyclers on proper recycling methods, perhaps we can start there.

But let’s no longer pretend that our policymaking is living up to the value we’ve placed on sustainability here in Massachusetts.

Meet the Author
An end to curbside recycling is not the only environmental emergency on the horizon. It’s just the most recent one that our neglect has turned into a crisis.

Jefferson R. Smith is the president of the Board of Directors of MASSRECYCLE and the founder & CEO of ThinkJet.