A nonprofit called the Recycling Partnership gives cities grants for supplies like recycling bins along with consulting to help expand recycling, funded by corporations like Coca-Cola and Pepsi that are desperate for a bigger source of recycled materials as they aim to increase recycled content in their packaging. The nonprofit also works with those companies to help them create products and packaging that are actually recyclable. Closed Loop Partners, which also works with large corporations, invests money from those companies in startups such as rPlanet Earth, an L.A.-area startup that has a closed-loop plant that takes in plastic containers and bottles and converts them into new food-grade containers onsite, in a world first. The fund also invests in startups with innovations across the entire recycling system.”We recognized that it wasn’t just one part of the system that needed to be solved for—we needed to address all of it in different ways,” says Ellen Martin, VP of impact and strategic initiatives at Closed Loop Partners.
Those investments include some companies that focus solely on municipal recycling. In many cities, the current model has private companies, like Waste Management, that handle both trash and recycling for the city. But their business model is challenging for recycling rates. Waste Management rapidly expanded beginning in the 1970s, privatizing waste services that were formerly run by cities and now serves more than 21 million municipal and business customers. But the largest part of its business is trash, not recycling. (In 2018, its collection and disposal business made $693 million on a year-over-year basis, while its recycling business fell by $197 million.) Since it makes money when materials end up in a landfill or waste-to-energy plant, but loses it when people recycle, the company has no financial incentive to help increase recycling rates. “Big Waste” companies now run the majority of landfills in the country.
Government can help change this, whether the laws are in the form of waste-reduction targets for a city or financial incentives to recycle, like the bottle bills that offer cash for recyclables that are in place in many states. “In pretty much all countries in the world, [those] that have high recycling rates have a significant set of regulations supporting that that actually makes the system functional,” says Rob Opsomer, systemic initiatives lead at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, an organization that focuses on the circular economy. In Oregon, which recently expanded its bottle bill program, 90% of beverage containers were recycled in 2018; nationally, only about 29% of plastic bottles are recycled. Governments could also choose to add new taxes to landfills so trashing materials is less economically appealing. “The cheap economics of landfilling here in the U.S. is one of our biggest struggles,” says Kate Bailey, director of Ecocycle Solutions, a nonprofit that handles recycling in Boulder, Colorado.