While many cities in the United States maintain active recycling programs, most of these programs are voluntary. Individuals and businesses often “opt out” of recycling and send materials to a landfill because they believe recycling costs more or requires too much time. Amid rapid recycling industry changes in the aftermath of China’s ban on importation of U.S. recyclables, it can appear that recycling costs more than landfilling. But that view ignores the energy and raw materials savings generated by recycling.

On the other hand, U.S. cities such as San Diego, Honolulu, San Francisco, Seattle, and Pittsburgh have made recycling programs mandatory. Other cities have introduced mandatory programs for business locations, allowing individuals to choose whether or not to participate. Although recycling rates are higher in these cities, there is still much “wishful” recycling due to poor information. People toss unrecyclable materials in the recycling bin in hopes it can be processed. The resulting contamination presents all sorts of problems, ranging from increased recycling processing costs to rendering tons of otherwise recyclable materials worthless.

Unfortunately, consumer education about what can be recycled is often insufficient. Without standards and clear guidance, people fail to recycle effectively regardless of whether a city embraces voluntary or mandatory recycling.

Mandatory: You Must Recycle!

Nine years ago, Earth911 reported about several cities that had pioneered mandatory recycling programs. Since then, more cities and even some states have set out mandatory programs. The city of Oakland, California, for example, started a mandatory recycling program for its largest businesses in 2012. The city expanded its mandatory program to include all businesses in 2014. Starting in 2016, Oakland required home and business recyclers to collect food scraps and compostable paper separately from recyclables and trash. Oakland also provides free organics carts to multi-family properties within their city. The city is considering zero waste plan proposals from a variety organizations.

Dallas and Austin took different experiences toward mandatory programs. In 2011, Dallas launched a 50-year solid waste plan to transform the city’s waste management systems to achieve zero waste by 2060. The first progress checkpoint is approaching in 2019, when all apartment buildings within the city must be zero-waste compliant, but to date, Dallas had achieved less than 10 percent of the goal.

By 2020, Dallas aims to bring their recycling program collection rate to 40 percent. The city hopes to achieve 60 percent recycling rates in 2030 and 100 percent by 2040. However, public reception of these deadlines is shaky, because of worries over contamination and funding.

Austin’s Universal Recycling Ordinance, by contrast, made steady progress since its inception in 1999. A breakthrough in the program came with the advent of the city’s embrace of single stream recycling. By this method, the consumer or business gathers all recyclables in a single bin; the items are then sorted by the hauler at a central location. After the single-bin model was put in place, acceptance of and adherence to the ordinance increased rapidly. Ease of recycling eliminated many complaints about the program.

State Recycling Leaders Favor Mandatory Rules

Perhaps the most ambitious examples of government bodies pushing for greater sustainability are Connecticut and Vermont, two states that took mandatory recycling programs to the next level. Connecticut enacted mandatory recycling in 1989, when it introduced a list of nine items that were required to be recycled. Since then, the state has expanded the list of materials that must be recycled. Individual municipalities can add their own recycling requirements to this statewide mandate. Additionally, in 2010, the state implemented a requirement for large-scale food waste generators to compost waste. Connecticut kept its bottle deposit system in place as other states discontinued deposit programs.

In 2012, Vermont began a similar recycling program with its Universal Recycling Law, an effective ban on three major types of recyclable materials in landfills: “blue bin” recyclables, yard clippings, and food waste. A 2018 amendment to the law established a state-wide ban on food waste from landfills, effective in 2020. Vermont also made its bottle-deposit system more rigorous to reinforce recycling incentives.

To read the full story, visit https://earth911.com/business-policy/policy-legislation/recycling-programs-debate-mandatory-vs-voluntary/.