Photo: The Recycling Partnership and PepsiCo Foundation’s All In On Recycling campaign

What happens when a national nonprofit dedicated to improving recycling partners with the philanthropic arm of a multinational food, snack and beverage corporation? According to The Recycling Partnership, Falls Church, Virginia, and the PepsiCo Foundation, Purchase, New York, 25 million families gain access to or optimize their existing recycling programs, resulting in the collection of 1.9 million tons of quality recyclables over the next five years.

In late July, the organizations partnered to launch All In On Recycling, which they describe as “the largest ever industrywide residential recycling challenge.”

Multiplying the investment

The PepsiCo Foundation has provided $10 million to jumpstart the challenge, which is seeking to raise $25 million in total donations from companies and organizations.

“We identified curbside and residential recycling as a critical area for investment and knew that [The Recycling Partnership] was the right partner for the project,” says Tim Carey, senior director of sustainability for PepsiCo. “We’ve been working with them for the past few years and believe in their data-driven approach that identifies, community by community, the specific challenges with residential recycling and then deploys targeted solutions.”

Keefe Harrison, CEO of The Recycling Partnership, says the investment model will allow the nonprofit to provide recycling carts to communities across the U.S.; create multifamily recycling infrastructure; optimize existing recycling programs through technical assistance and access to free online tools; and deliver education that will drive behavioral change among consumers.

“The Recycling Partnership model leverages corporate dollars to unlock public sector dollars,” Harrison says. “To date in our infrastructure projects, that leverage has been as high as $7 public sector to $1 private sector.”

She continues, “For this challenge, we anticipate at least a three-fold leverage—so we’ll be able to turn that $25 million into $100 million ($75 million leverage) worth of recycling improvements.”

The public dollars come from local budgets and state grants, Harrison says, adding that additional community foundation funding could be provided.

Several large corporations in addition to PepsiCo have shown interest in the program, she says, noting that final amounts have not been determined as of mid-September. However, Harrison says she expects those figures to be in the millions. “The more we are able to raise, the more system change we can make at an important time in the history of U.S. recycling.”

Because of insufficient infrastructure, widely varying municipal recycling programs and low awareness of proper recycling practices, more than half of the material that could be recycled from U.S. households is lost, the partners say.

Half of the total funds raised by this challenge are expected to help provide curbside carts to more than 550,000 households—a proven way to double the number of recyclables recovered, according to The Recycling Partnership—and the missing infrastructure needed to recover recyclables from multifamily homes, such as apartment buildings and condos. The other half of the funding will support recycling education and operational programs that will increase collection of recyclables while reducing contamination, which has become a growing area of concern in light of the quality parameters China introduced earlier this year for imports of recyclables.

Photo: Elizabeth Schussler

Educating on the basics

While some in the industry blame large-capacity carts for the growing contamination in the recycling stream, Harrison says she does not believe this to be true. “Instead, a lack of targeted residential engagement tends to be the issue when you look at programs with high contamination,” she says.

“Communities that use carts for recycling can still have under a 10 percent contamination rate,” Harrison continues. “Unfortunately, we as an industry have tried to roll carts out and have tried to manage them just like garbage collection. When this happens, too many homes are placed on a route, often little information is given to the resident about what to put in the cart and no protocols are put in place to audit the material going into the cart (i.e., what should the driver do, how should the program reject carts, etc.).”

Harrison says she has seen communities and haulers make a number of missteps in transitioning to carts for curbside-collected recyclables. These include using recycling carts that are the same color as garbage carts, deploying carts without any information and failing to reject recycling carts even if they are clearly filled with garbage.

“We believe recycling carts should be a different color (preferably blue) than the garbage cart with a big mobius loop hot stamp on the side,” she says.

The Recycling Partnership also believes recycling carts should be delivered with information packets that highlight acceptable recyclables.

Harrison says, “With proper education and implementation of contamination-reducing programming, we believe single-stream carts can be viable in generating increased tonnage for the recycling system.”

She adds that The Recycling Partnership supports dual- and single-stream recycling programs.

Regardless of the mode of collection, according to capture rate data from The Recycling Partnership, only 50 percent of recyclable packaging is making it into recycling carts in half of the households that have this service.

“Our multipronged strategies, rooted in behavior change, include a tested and proven combination of direct mail, tagging of carts with messaging and local educational campaigns,” Harrison says, adding that The Recycling Partnership has increased capture rates and decreased contamination.

Taking a holistic approach

Carey says initiatives such as All In On Recycling that help to recover more cans and bottles create more opportunities for Pepsi- Co to increase its use of recycled content.

“We approach sustainable packaging holistically, which includes investing in recycling infrastructure to make it easier and more convenient for customers to recycle materials including glass, aluminum and plastic,” he says. “PepsiCo is one of the largest users of recycled plastic in the world, and we firmly believe that if we are using plastics in our packaging, then these materials must be reused again and again.”

Carey says PepsiCo has invested nearly $55 million in U.S. recycling efforts throughout the past nine years and views these investments as being “essential” to achieving the company’s product sustainability goals.

When it comes to designing for recycling, he says, “We have design teams working right now to improve the recyclability of packaging so it doesn’t interfere with existing collection and recycling systems. We recognize that some components of our packaging may inhibit recyclability. That’s why we’re replacing certain materials (like labels) to help optimize material recovery in municipal recycling systems. We’re also looking to reduce the volume of materials used in each package.”

The company’s goal is to have 100 percent of its packaging be recyclable, compostable or biodegradable by 2025. According PepsiCo’s data for 2017, Carey says nearly 85 percent of its beverage packaging worldwide fell into one of these categories.

However, he adds that PepsiCo is looking for “better, more responsive ways to package our products,” noting that this includes piloting plant-based bioplastic bags. The company has partnered with biotech firm Danimer Scientific, Bainbridge, Georgia, to develop snacks packaging made completely with biodegradable film resins.

Going beyond single family

Just as PepsiCo is challenging itself in the area of packaging design, All In On Recycling is targeting what has been a challenging segment for the recycling industry: multifamily residences.

“Multifamily is challenging because each property owner can determine if, who and how often recycling services will be provided to their multifamily units in a given community, so the number of stakeholders that needs to be reached increases significantly versus single-family homes,” Harrison says.

She adds that the staff of The Recycling Partnership is experienced in this area and has a variety of strategies to provide grants and assistance to multifamily properties that want to begin recycling programs. “Our intent is to deliver best practices and learnings to this segment so programs can be scaled and services improved across the country.”

Transforming the system

Harrison says The Recycling Partnership was created to drive measurable improvements in the recycling system throughout the U.S. “As the partnership continues to build a strong track record of delivering measurable results in improving recycling, leading companies are exploring ways to partner together with us to transform recycling for good.”

In exploring its options to improve the recycling rate, Harrison says PepsiCo and its foundation found that it made sense to make a long-term commitment to The Recycling Partnership.

She says, “As companies explore their options in reaching their waste, recycling carbon and community goals, we think many more leading companies will decide to follow PepsiCo Foundation’s example and invest in transforming the recycling system to create a healthier plant, a healthier economy and thriving communities.”

The author is editor of Recycling Today and can be contacted at dtoto@gie.net.