The woman who wants to reinvent recycling

The woman who wants to reinvent recycling
© Courtesy of Meghan Stasz

American recycling is in a time of crisis.

Cities have gone from making a profit with their recycling programs to losing cash or even stockpiling goods while waiting for the market to rebound.

At the same time, consumers are putting more pressure than ever on companies to make their products and packaging more climate-friendly. But in-flux markets give their recyclable packaging few places to go.

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The solution Meghan Stasz has come up with is to reinvent the process completely.

“One of the reasons that recycling is not as functional as it could be in the U.S. is because it’s run municipality by municipality,” she said. “There are about 10,000 different recycling programs across the U.S., and that means 10,000 different rules about what you can recycle.”

Stasz, 40, is the vice president of packaging and sustainability for the Consumer Brands Association, which represents the companies that make just about every shelf-stable product in grocery stores.

She’s kicking off a yearlong process to rewrite the rules for recycling, the initial steps of a moonshot effort to redesign the market for recycled goods, organizing a coalition of other food and beverage retail groups around what they’re calling the American Recycling Roadmap.

Fundamentally, the group is hoping to standardize and harmonize the recycling system: making what’s recyclable in San Francisco the same as in St. Louis or Savannah, Ga.

Stasz’s interest in the environment started when she got a job leading nature tours for kids in the Appalachians straight out of college. She later went on to work her way up at the Environmental Defense Fund, where watching the organization’s numerous partnerships with the private sector helped her decide to get her master’s in business administration.

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“There was a recognition that partnership between the NGO community and the private sector would get everybody to the place that we want to be faster,” Stasz told The Hill recently. “The private sector, because it operates on such scale, has an incredible opportunity to do a lot of good.”

Reinventing recycling could radically simplify things for the companies represented by the Consumer Brands Association and the other groups, businesses which are tasked with creating packaging that both ensures safe transport and appeals to green-minded consumers.

“Consumers have become very interested in and in some cases very concerned about some kinds of packaging. We’re really seeing this groundswell of interest in making packaging better for the environment,” Stasz said.

Creating that type of packaging is a challenge, however, as businesses are unsure how many of the nation’s recycling programs accept the types of plastics and other materials they use, or if there is a sufficient global market where they can resell it.

Single-stream recycling — where everything goes in one bin — may have made things easier for consumers, but it also increased the likelihood of plastic and broken glass getting mixed in with paper.

That so-called contamination led China, for decades the world’s largest importer of waste paper, used plastic and scrap metal, to refuse to accept certain kinds of recyclables and tighten its standards for impurities.

“For a long time our recycling system domestically was built around one or two major customers,” Stasz said. China’s decision “sent shockwaves through recycling systems in the U.S.”

One of the challenges facing her is ensuring that there is actually a market for the recyclables that would work within a unified system.

“There’s a big difference between what is technically recyclable and what is economically feasible to recycle,” said Cooper Martin with the National League of Cities, which represents the localities that would have to buy into the American Recycling Roadmap vision.

What many Americans may not realize is that many of their so-called recyclables are too expensive to process into other goods, ultimately heading to a landfill after being shipped all the way to China.

“Facilities don’t always exist that make efficient use of that material. Some plastic soda and water bottles have gotten thinner, they’re using less plastic, which on a material basis seems better, but it actually makes those bottles more difficult to recycle,” Martin said. “The reality is a lot of material that we were collecting and then sending to China was not actually being recycled. It was us just shifting a problem to another country.”

A recycling reinvention could help curb that problem. A unified set of rules could help steer cities toward accepting only recyclables that can actually be recycled. Stasz hopes doing so could lead to a surge in the domestic recycling market, where recyclables are processed and then resold here in the U.S. rather than being shipped on lengthy journeys overseas.

“It’s a crisis for sure, but it also presents a real opportunity to build out those buyers and recycling infrastructure domestically,” Stasz said.

While that uniformity could provide the certainty needed to boost domestic recyclers, it may be hard to get municipalities on board.

Rural and urban areas have distinct recycling challenges. Larger cities may have the economies of scale to make picking up certain types of materials worthwhile that might not be feasible for smaller towns. Programs in rural areas already contend with the difficulty of collecting materials from widely dispersed residents — and getting those recyclables to processing centers.

Cities are not directly involved in Stasz’s efforts yet, though she hopes they will weigh in at various meetings across the country set for this year.

Martin said he’s generally supportive of the effort and agrees with Stasz that the entire system needs to be overhauled, but he cautioned against a one-size-fits-all approach to urban and rural areas.

“To say the industry is not standardized is a pretty big understatement. It’s really, really diverse,” he said. “And the notion of standardizing would require a lot of cities to make a lot of changes and require a lot of support from state and federal government.”

Stasz is hopeful the government eventually will step in to help coordinate a solution.

“Government should play a role akin to the Apollo space mission, pulling the greatest minds together and really fixing the recycling challenge,” she said.