We are at the forefront of environmental planning. Cities and towns alike have more information and technology available than ever before to green the spaces in which residents live. We have seen fantastic breakthroughs and innovative strategies such as transit villages; rooftop gardens; ethanol-fueled buses; expansion of bike lanes; residential compost pick-up and plastic bag banning. These are just a few of the buzzing topics bustling amidst the environmental planning discussion. Somehow, one of the oldest, conventional strategies in the book, lingers in the shadow of the exciting and shiny activity, like a teenage wallflower waiting to be asked to dance: recycling. There is still so much work to be done.

Take for example in-store recycling. Or lack thereof. Have you ever noticed this? Let’s take a walk.

A disposable coffee cup from Starbucks in 2009 advertises the relationship between the company, the customer, and the environment. Photo by ceceliaruca on Flickr.

A disposable coffee cup from Starbucks in 2009 advertises the relationship between the company, the customer, and the environment. Photo by ceceliaruca on Flickr.

You could be at Starbucks, walking in to receive your piping hot latte (full acknowledgement that a good portion of the cost of that latte was for the packaging) before toiling away on your phone or reading a book. Or maybe you’re at Chipotle where you’ve ordered your burrito and are in the throws of Tex-Mex heaven and swigs of soda. At some point, your attention is turned to the cardboard sleeve on the cup holding your latte, or the wrapper your burrito is in. Come on, you’ve had to have read some of the savvy and fantastic lettering on all that packaging. Here are the buzzwords in brief: “Sustainable. Recyclable. 10% post-consumer fiber cup, 60% post-consumer fiber sleeve.” Or what about Chipotle’s fantastic windy word maze describing the need to be environmentally conscious and aware of your food’s origin, while subtlety reminding you that what you just ate came from a good place?

Yikes, it sure does feel good to feel good about what you’re eating or drinking! Even better when you are reminded that the product you paid for somehow did a good deed, or at least has intentions to.

But what happens when you go to throw that product away?

Maybe you’re a conscious consumer. Maybe you’re not. But it’s quite simple. The vast majority of places we go to throw away our trash or used containers, well, only give us one option…trash. That’s right. That one bin you approach as you go to throw away your container is playing God. It’s determining the end of life for all products placed in its catchment, deeming them all as useless garbage, destined for landfill. There’s not even an opportunity to give the complicated human factor a chance! There’s just one place to toss it.

Perhaps this leads you to a whirling vortex of conversation surrounding the catch-22 and ironic notion of having a container you can recycle, and nowhere to actually recycle it. I’m not going to digress into the astonishingly abysmal system that is New York City’s recycling program, nor call out any one specific company for their lack of providing the means to properly recycle. Rather, I’d like to prompt the conversation surrounding this idiosyncratic mono-disposal madness that both urban and non-urban environments are plagued by, particularly in storefronts.

Digging around on the web, one can easily reach the conclusion that many of these stores face barriers such as zoning restrictions, municipal politics, and restrictive private sector rules when it comes to the waste haulers, all accompanied by the fear that not every consumer will recycle. In many cities, there are upfront costs, waste minimum requirements, and landlord / building owner conflicts. The list could go on indefinitely. Recycling is a risk that initially might not pay off. Since recycling is superior to landfilling, we need to begin to think big picture about the roles cities can actively play in facilitating businesses big and small to implement store front recycling. It’s time to consider that the roles cities currently play may just need some strengthening.

Public Recycling bin in San Jose, California. Photo courtesy of mksfly.

Public Recycling bin in San Jose, California. Photo courtesy of mksfly.

Can a city create incentives for in-store recycling? Absolutely. In fact, many are. Take for example San Jose, CA, where the city outright told recycling haulers that more money will be made by the volume of recyclables collected, not trash. The city got rid of the monopolistic franchise that was arranged for commercial trash and recycling disposal to allow for experimentation by a wide variety of waste haulers to partake in the bidding/hauling process, allowing the diverse range of business to select any permitted hauler. Sometimes large franchise haulers require a minimum amount of trash and recyclables to be generated in order for there to be a pick up. This minimum can exclude many businesses, and this additional cost that deters recycling efforts. By eliminating the franchise system, smaller decentralized and entrepreneurial disposal companies can service the mom and pop shops that might not otherwise meet the minimum disposal requirement.

San Jose also implemented a higher fee on generators and haulers of waste, yet mandated there be no franchise fees on recyclables. The higher fee for trash disposal clearly encourages recycling, and the revenue made from the higher fee for trash disposal helps cover the costs of city programs.

Of course, we can never negate the possibility of human error or lack of interest. But there are countless ways to work around this challenge via the medium of economic incentive and education. One unique company, RecycleBank, offers benefits for recycling for those who sign up on their website. In signing up, you are simultaneously taking short quizzes, learning about the different materials you can recycle, while also making a pledge to recycle certain items. Should you stick to your pledge and prove it, you are rewarded for your efforts. Initially starting in NY, RecycleBank has spread its reach as far as Texas, with quantitative proof that offering incentives like tickets to a local movie or restaurant, will work. Drastically. But cities can’t just hand out rewards or rely on RecycleBank to get the job done for storefronts or to get the entire city to participate in recycling. They can however, follow the RecycleBank model and create economic incentives to recycle. Or they can revisit their waste minimization plans, conduct surveys of the waste streams in the city and gain a solid understanding of the barriers faced by storefronts and waste haulers. Even rethinking the way cities arrange contracts for waste haulers, like the city of San Jose.

While the cities toil, we can initiate change by acknowledging the waste we all generate every day. It’s easy while in the home but it takes more mental focus to do so when you are out and about. Should you elect to be the conscious consumer, thinking about the end of life for your trash, you too will come to recognize the mono-disposal dilemma. A word to the wise: bags (reusable of course) are a nifty and proactive way to carry the recyclable materials you may encounter throughout the day, to your nearest recycle bin. For those in suburban and rural areas who rely primarily on car transport, it’s as easy as tossing recyclables in your trunk until they can be properly disposed of. Sometimes the best public and private practices begin with our individual efforts.

  • Magnitogorsk

    Cool article – I agree with you that a few things could be going on here. First, the City needs to develop a more robust recycling system capable of handling a wider array of products, perhaps through single stream recycling. Second, private storefronts need to take advantage of the recycling system made available to them, like you mentioned, perhaps through incentives. Finally, consumers of products need to learn to take advantage of the recycling made available by the storefronts. Its critical, like your article points out, to think about each of these layers of policy whenever Planners consider the topic of recycling/waste management. The lack of uniformity from one town/city to another makes the second and third aspects especially difficult.