The Five Ws of Recycling: What, Why, When, Where, Who (and How)

Carl Smith

 

Maximizing the sustainability of a product requires more than just tossing it into a curbside recycling bin. It requires a comprehensive approach to its entire lifecycle—one that encompasses the environmental awareness and practices of manufacturers, consumers and recyclers.  This is increasingly important as consumers expand their use of items containing potentially hazardous materials and as limited landfill space shrinks. It is more vital than ever that materials with the potential to be recycled are diverted from the waste stream and, instead, routed to an appropriate processing facility that can recycle them or ensure proper end-of-life disposal.

 

What is Responsible Recycling? Responsible recycling is the practice of being held accountable for each step of a product’s lifecycle. From the materials used in a product to the collection of used materials to the proper disposal method—everyone plays a role in accepting the responsibility to ensure we are minimizing the long-term environmental impact of products.Responsible recycling requires the participation of manufacturers, consumers and recyclers.

 

Ultimately, manufacturers determine the sustainability of a product through both the design and materials used. Can the different materials be properly identified?  How easy is it to recycle each part? Are all recyclable materials, such as the rechargeable battery, easily accessible?  These and other points must be considered at the product-conception phase to help ensure that a truly sustainable product makes its way to the market place.

 

Consumer participation in responsible recycling programs has been buoyed by a rise in awareness of recycling best practices. Approximately 85 percent of Americans claim they have recycled in the last year, yet 29 percent also feel they should be doing more.1 If it’s easy—the material is easily accessible and if they have convenient recycling options, such as curbside and retail drop-off locations—they can.

 

Recyclers—sorters and processors—ensure safe handling and processing of potentially hazardous materials and also reclaim reusable materials. They are a vital stage in the sustainable product lifecycle.

 

What Types of Facilities are Available to Accept Recyclable Material? How Do You Find Out Where to Go? Accessibility to recycling options is an important consideration related to finding and using recycling facilities and collections sites. Where we live is a key factor here.  Urban and suburban populations have access to a variety of collection options—curbside pickup, retail drop off locations, municipal collection hubs and more—some rural populations may not have as many options. While our home location may determine ease of access and convenience of recycling, a wide range of options exist that make proper end-of-life disposal of recyclables quick and painless.

 

Consumers see curbside recycling as a convenient solution for every recyclable. However, some common household waste items such as fluorescent bulbs, paint and more are often regulated due to health and safety concerns which limits the ways they can be handled. Other recycling options fill the gap to help ensure all materials can be properly processed. Many local retailers provide recycling opportunities through in-store drop-off and collection sites. Retail chains—such as Best Buy, The Home Depot, RadioShack, Staples and Lowe’s—have implemented take-back programs for items such as e-waste, wood pallets, rechargeable batteries, fluorescent bulbs and more. These “shop and drop” programs mean recycling can be managed during regular business hours.

 

To provide centralized recycling options for its citizens, municipalities often hold semi-annual or quarterly collection events for recyclables with special handling requirements. In addition, many municipalities have identified specific collection facilities to serve as a central recycling hub to meet regional needs.

 

Consumers can also search for and find many recycling options online. On their sites, municipalities often provide a detailed listing of the items they take back, the recycling locations for each product, and the dates and times facilities are open. Many non-profit take-back programs, such as call2recycle.org, often have a locator feature on their Web sites to assist consumers in recycling their products. National recycling directories are searchable on the Web.

 

What Steps Do We Need to Take to Help Increase Recycling Participation? What Types of Materials Are Becoming More Prominent? Two improvements, implemented properly, can go a long way to reduce waste and help manage the increasing volumes of recycling. Improved product designs that consider proper end-of-life disposal as a priority and improved communications that address consumer education can help improve participation in recycling programs. Education can help consumers embrace—and even demand more—improved product design because of its larger environmental impact. For instance, there have been significant changes in packaging and the use of plastics due to consumer feedback.

 

eWaste is becoming a more prominent focus in the recycling community worldwide due to the rapidly growing volumes of electronic waste, such as cellphones, laptops, tablets, e-readers and more. Rechargeable batteries, often considered to be a component of eWaste, are also seeing increased usage and waste. Each year, Americans buy more than 350 million rechargeable batteries2 and send about 14,000 tons of them to landfills3—most come from wireless devices like cellphones, e-readers, laptops and tablets. These batteries take up space in landfills and may discharge materials that could be harmful to the environment.

 

With 322 million wireless products in use in the U.S.,4 mobile, consumption of connected devices is expected to increase by 100 percent by 2020. These products are all powered by rechargeable batteries. Responsible recycling of both the battery and the device will divert millions of tons of potentially harmful heavy metals and e-waste from the waste stream.

 

How are Rechargeable Batteries and Cellphones Recycled? Consumers may take their waste that requires special handling to collection sites across the nation, including recycling centers that have been established by their municipality. Many national retailers also serve as collection sites where consumers can drop off recyclable products.

 

Through the Call2Recycle collection program, collection sites ship batteries and cellphones for free to contracted sorting and recycling facilities. Precious metals recovered from old batteries are used to create new batteries and stainless steel products. Cellphones are recycled, refurbished and/or resold. When resold, a portion of the proceeds are used to fund the cellphone collection program and public education. None of the reclaimed material makes its way into landfills. For Call2Recycle, the results are measurable.  Call2Recycle has diverted more than 75 million pounds of rechargeable batteries and cellphones—approximately six million pounds of batteries in 2013 alone—from local landfills since collections began in 1996.

 

What Steps Can You Take to Inform People About Battery and Cellphone Recycling? What Kind of Outreach Programs Work Best? Simply creating recycling programs and the infrastructure to manage them does not ensure participation. Ongoing educational programs that raise awareness—about responsibility and accessibility—are key to ensuring success and helping move people from just knowledgeable to active participants. Education can play a major role in changing behaviors related to recycling.A 2012 study commissioned by Call2Recycle, and conducted by IPSOS, revealed that, of people who didn’t recycle rechargeable batteries and cellphones in the previous year, 37 percent ‘didn’t know where’ to recycle these items. One-quarter (24 percent) ‘didn’t know they could’ recycle items like cellphones and batteries, while two in 10 (15 percent) ‘thought that they had to go to a special place to recycle them’. Four percent ‘thought they could only recycle them once a year at a special place’ or provided some other reason.5

 

One of the best sources of consumer education surrounding recycling has been product stewardship organizations. These groups—often funded by product manufacturers—are essential to the sustainable lifecycle of a product. They work with manufacturers, advocating for sustainable design, educating consumers on the “how” and “why” of recycling, developing collection partners, and providing assistance and direction in proper end-of-life disposal.

 

Effective outreach programs provide consumers with accessible and easy options for recycling.  These programs know that simplicity in recycling at a retail location can be reinforced by a well-placed, graphicallyappealing collection bin. Collections can be increased and accessibility can be improved with a small change in hours of operation. Efficient outreach can also engage and motivate consumers, rewarding their good behavior.  Incentives for participation can include coupons at retail outlets or “recycling day” activities.

 

What is the Utopia? True product sustainability requires end-to-end recycling accountability.  If each participant—manufacturers, consumers, product stewardship organizations and retailers—take responsibility for its part in the lifecycle of a product, true recycling success can be achieved. The results of a unified effort to be more environmentally responsible are healthier communities and a healthier planet.

 

Carl Smith is CEO and President of Call2Recycle (Atlanta, GA), North America’s first and largest consumer battery stewardship and recycling program. Carl leads the organization in its efforts to help preserve the environment through responsible recycling of batteries. With more than 322 million wireless devices (phones, tablets, and e-readers) in use in the U.S. alone—all powered by rechargeable batteries—recycling both the battery and the device are more important than ever before. Carl can be reached at (877) 723-1297.

 

Beyond the Box: What happens to rechargeable batteries once they are dropped in a Call2Recycle collection box?  Take a tour of the processing facility outside Pittsburgh, PA at

www.call2recycle.org/battery-video.

 

 

Notes

 

  1. Call2Recycle.
  2. EPA.
  3. Earth 911.
  4. CTIA.
  5. The IPSOS question allowed respondents to answer more than one question.