February 1, 2022


Mark Armen

Recycling is to Diversion as Circularity is to Destination

The City of Palo Alto wants to know where their recyclables end up. This is a great initiative, as it forces responsibility and transparency. The reality of dumping materials in developing nations is real, and must end. The City's vendor and its brokers are unable to or refuse to disclose this information - and to me this is disclosure enough that the system is broken. 

Further Reading: Where do your recyclables go? Palo Alto struggles to track their destination as material heads abroad

Cities, counties, and states have long measured the output of recycling by diversion rate. In California, AB 341 mandated cities and counties to create a plan to divert 50% of all solid waste from landfill disposal by January 2000 and then increased that to 75% diversion by January 2020. This metric has made recycling equivalent to diversion. Not only is the metric wrong but its also not working: per a recent report, California's diversion rate as of December 2021 is 42%.

Diversion is essentially "not landfill." This focus has prioritized where materials don't go over where they do. It is no wonder then that the City of Palo Alto cannot get destination information from a system that was created for diversion. This system results in scarcity, not abundance: materials are dumped, contamination is overlooked, data is nonexistent, and pollution can even increase. 

In 2016, the Ecology Center from Berkeley, CA placed GPS transponders in their plastic and paper bales and tracked the materials to a town in China. "What we found confirms some of our worst nightmares: dumping in the local canyon of materials they couldn't recycle, plastic in the farmland incorporated into the soil of the cornfields nearby."

Further reading: Where Will Your Plastic Trash Go Now That China Doesn't Want It?

A system that is "not landfill" pushes the problem to someone or somewhere else, and further erodes trust from where it was already lacking. The City of Palo Alto's vendors will not share the final destination of materials because they don't know (which is a problem) or they don't want you to know (which is a bigger problem) - but when held to their metric they have essentially done their job. 

Yes, materials not going to the landfill is a good thing; however, we must also ensure that those materials become nutrients that enrich something new. Over a decade ago, I began working with large consumer brands to increase recycling rates to help them reach their recycled content commitments. However, I noticed that the materials we were collecting for brands did not make it into their supply chain. The result was frustrating: brands were no closer to reaching their goals and the materials we collected were downcycled into products that were one step away from landfill. 

We need a new goal: one that prioritizes destination. This new goal will create a system where materials are endlessly reused. If we continue with diversion only, we perpetuate a linear system that pushes more trash and just call it recycling. However, when we highlight the end destination which pulls the materials into its supply chain we create a circular system of trust. This will motivate citizens to return more materials which will result in more materials available to the open-armed brands and manufacturers.

We call it circularity. 

Last week I cold-called a city in Northern California to discuss a potential opportunity with them and the first question I was asked: "Where do you send your materials?" I have never been asked this question and was shocked and delighted it was asked out-of-the gate. "This came up in our council meeting last night and is becoming more important to us." Yes!

In addition to this Northern California city and Palo Alto, progressive brands and retailers now understand that recycling alone does not lead to their ESG goals. Several executives have told me that they "don't want to invest in growing the recycling rate if carpet manufacturers benefit from our investment."  They need (and are today building) circularity: to fulfill their ESG and supply chain commitments but to also build a new level of trust with their customer.

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