Recycling takes center stage at SXSW Eco


Recycling has come a long way in the past several decades. The concept of repurposing items such as aluminum cans and cardboard instead of sending them to a landfill is widely accepted. There are more than 2,000 curbside recycling programs nationwide compared to 500 programs a little more than two decades ago.

But it’s not all good news.

A recent panel discussion at the SXSW Eco conference titled, “Recycling More vs. Recycling Right in America,” posed some interesting questions, such as:

  • Is it OK to put recyclables in a plastic bag when you place it in the recycling bin?
  • When paper is shredded, is it OK to put in the recycling bin curbside?

The answer to both questions is no. Most recycling plants do not accept plastic bags or shredded paper because it hurts the mechanical operations of the facilities.

A lack of knowledge and awareness among the general public, as well as differences in recycling programs nationwide, often leads to contamination in recycling material streams. This is a big issue cities are trying to address, since they resell the items collected and manufacturers need clean materials to make new products.

Recycling in America

Panelists from H-E-B, the City of Philadelphia Recycling Office, the National Waste & Recycling Association and Keep America Beautiful Inc. discussed these problems, potential solutions and much more. Here are some key takeaways:

  • Brenda Pulley, SVP of Recycling at Keep America Beautiful Inc., said moving to single-stream recycling, which allows people to put mixed recyclables into one cart or bin, has been the single-biggest technological improvement in recycling.
  • Susan Ghertner, Director of Environmental Affairs at H-E-B, says H-E-B has been recycling cardboard for 30-35 years, and the grocery store chain now recycles metals, construction debris, oils, computers, etc. The economics make sense since H-E-B not only saves money on its trash hauls, but it can earn money for recyclables on the commodity market.
  • Phil Bresee, Recycling Director for the City of Philadelphia, says Philly has $8-15 million in fiscal benefits from recycling in the last five years. This includes revenues from selling materials and avoiding disposal costs. The City had nearly 130,000 tons of recyclables collected in the last fiscal year, and the breakdown is 45% paper, 45% containers and 10% residue (i.e. junk). To measure future success of the recycling program, he also wants to look at the greenhouse gas benefits.

What needs to be done to support recycling in the future?

  • Most of the panelists agree there needs to be a shift in mindset so people not only think about recycling more, but also consuming less. This is part of the “reduce, reuse, recycle” mantra.
  • Bresee believes upstream ideas will help reduce waste. Better packaging and product design will help limit trash.
  • Ghertner says H-E-B is using game mechanics to encourage more recycling at each of their store locations. Instead of revenue from recyclables being evenly distributed, stores will get recycling revenue only from the materials their store produces.
  • Panelists acknowledged that “pay as you throw” programs are effective in reducing garbage generation.

Share your own recycling wisdom or ideas in the comments below!

And check out our Eco-Tips videos about recycling and waste reduction to modify your own habits and learn a thing or two!

More SXSW Eco coverage: