What to do when the price of recycling beer bottles rises? For many towns around the country—like Deer Lodge, Montana—the answer isn’t an elegant one: make trash cans larger.
For cities like Hollywood, Florida, the response was more carrot than stick. Here, a full recycling bin counts toward your next full beer, and it’s an incentive concept worth examining for businesses interested in curbing costs.
With less-than-optimal volumes, smaller towns, municipalities, and the businesses within them have to constantly weigh the economic viability of curbside recycling. When China stopped importing the America’s discarded paper products and plastics in 2018, the market for our recyclable junk shrunk considerably, causing a dilemma:
Margins are quickly evaporating for traditional haulers.
As Americans are producing more waste than ever before—a whopping 262.4M tons in 2015, according to the EPA—transport to open landfills is becoming longer and increasing hauler expenses. At the same time, dumps are raising costs to deal with the glut of American recyclables no longer shipped to China. A study by the Environmental Research & Education Foundation (EREF) found an average year-over-year increase of 3.5 percent in landfill tipping fees from 2016 through 2018.
To combat these fees, haulers hike prices, and towns reluctantly discontinue or restrict recycling services. That means what was once separated now narrows to a single stream, where everything—municipal solid waste (MSW), glass, cardboard, etc.—goes in the same bin.
The caveat is that a majority of Americans don’t care what it costs. A recent Pew study found that 63 percent say “stricter environmental regulations are ‘worth the cost.’” On a personal level, most individuals recognize the mantra "reduce, reuse, recycle" as their most actionable effect on climate change, even if there’s room for improvement (about 25 percent of what the nation recycles is contaminated and unusable).
But when given a tangible reward for separating recycling and filling it to the brim, adoption is nearly unanimous.
In 2020, Waste Pro, a residential waste management service serving the Southeastern U.S., launched its own rewards program in the Florida cities of Hollywood and Palm Coast to help boost recycling volumes. Waste Pro scans affixed RFID tags upon collection and residents with full bins are credited 25 points that can be redeemed at local businesses, from participating restaurants to Office Depot and LA Fitness, among others.
In conjunction with city-wide educational campaigns on what can and cannot be recycled, how to reduce contamination (like unrinsed condiment bottles or greasy pizza boxes), and other green practices, the city is leaning into the program to raise the market value for its recycling, offsetting the rising costs.
The end result for homeowners is a greener community, a lighter conscience, and possibly a free milkshake.
GET WITH THE (REWARDS) PROGRAM
Pivoting to a business case, motivations—or lack thereof—are different than those of individuals. Businesses do care what recycling costs and don’t want a discount on their next burger or oil change.
Filling a can or dumpster is often not the issue, as universities, office buildings, hospitals, and restaurants produce waste on a significantly larger scale than homeowners. Hospitals, for instance, produce 5.9M tons of medical waste per year at 29lbs per staffed bed per day. With complications from the pandemic, that amount of waste has skyrocketed — hospitals at COVID-19’s epicenter in Wuhan produced 240 metric tons of waste daily at its peak. Among the additional waste, 129B disposable face masks are used and discarded per month, and they have to go somewhere. Unfortunately, many environmentalists believe that’ll be the ocean.
[More from RoadRunner’s Waste Watchers blog: The Growing Impact of PPE]
While waste production is currently skewed toward hospitals and homes, when office buildings, residence halls, and restaurants inevitably refill, building managers and owners will confront the same issues they had faced pre-COVID. That is, commercial inefficiencies and uncapped annual price increases hampering not only the real percentage of recycled materials but operating costs as well.
So, what can businesses learn from a residential recycling rewards program? Active participation cuts costs.
Ultimately, waste removal and recycling need to be treated less like a sunk cost and more like an opportunity to improve the bottom line.
Communities in Florida know that if they follow the rules, they’ll be rewarded. Businesses, for the most part, haven’t recognized the modus operandi. Only 14 percent of US businesses have a recycling plan. Of those that do, less than 20 percent of that waste is processed appropriately, while the rest of it ends up in landfills due to contamination and other causes. Treating recycling as an incentive has the potential to change that.
The rewards for businesses are both direct and indirect and, to convert, participation needs to reach a different goal than residential. For the commercial sector, hitting peak volume doesn’t hold as much value as predictability does.
Knowing what, how much, and when optimizes operations and reduces contamination significantly, meaning more is actually recycled and less time is wasted. With predictability comes direct cost savings: a stakeholder’s favorite reward.
The Rise of Machines, The Fall of Operating Costs
With a partner like RoadRunner Recycling, predictability is baked into the process. Custom algorithms are derived for your business to anticipate pickups and create agile routes that eliminate mileage (read: extra cost) in transit. In a coordinated consolidation, service costs in the form of penalties and fees are reduced, and billing issues and negotiations are resolved at the source. Exorbitant annual price increases, which traditionally average at 15+ percent, are also capped at three percent by RoadRunner in the first three years as a customer.
And as the business world grasps with the fluctuations in waste volumes caused by the pandemic, machine learning enables flexible pickups, service level changes, and a smarter view into the materials your business generates to ensure ongoing improvement to your recycling program.
Achieving predictability is realized to the tune of 20 percent contracted savings over a 36-month period. With action as the only stipulation, RoadRunner’s educational programs and optimized receptacles for high-traffic areas ensure lower contamination and up to 50 percent higher recycling rates.
Indirectly, this yields another reward. Aside from the obvious reduction in lowering your carbon footprint, a study from MIT shows prospective, highly skilled employees care considerably about a company’s sustainability efforts. Moreover, a recent survey of 1,000 employees of large U.S. companies found that 70% of respondents factored sustainability into their choice to stay with an organization long-term.
Encouraging green practices is one easy step businesses can take toward a cleaner Earth and a leaner operation. And the money that stays in your budget is a worthy reward, even if it’s reinvested as employee milkshakes.
Want to see what rewards your business can reap through clean-stream recycling?