How Green Companies Navigate Complex Trash Laws

Since curbside recycling programs began in the 1960s, the Environmental Protection Agency says the US now recycles about 33 percent of its solid waste—an all-time high.

Jim Franco | Digital Vision | Getty Images

But while recycling is now possible across much of the country, a complex web of rules—along with corporate and local government desires to be seen being as “green” as possible—can make it hard to figure out what’s really happening to all that rescued waste.

Within a city, there can be different rules on what’s collected from residential and commercial addresses.

A city can have several contractors in different zones, each with different rules. And forget about neighboring cities having the same rules.

“It’s like independent school districts,” says Rich Abramowitz, director of public affairs at Waste Management, “Trying to get them to harmonize is nearly impossible.”

There is often a tug-of-war between launching a recycling program that lets end users participate as effortlessly as possible, and finding a consistent market for the collected recyclables.

Trash Inc: The Secret Life of Garbage
Trash Inc: The Secret Life of Garbage

Horror stories from the early days of recycling—about curbside recyclables dutifully sorted by households and businesses being thrown into the same trucks as the rest of the garbage and taken to the same landfill for disposal—are now in the past, says Darby Hoover of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a senior resource specialist with the environmental non-profit group who analyzes solid waste practices.

“A lot of people are afraid that’s what used to happen, and in the past, like 20 years ago, that was the case,” Darby says about this sham recycling.

But she adds that today, with more available waste product streams and better-developed markets for recyclables, “if something has been diverted and is going through a recycling facility, it’s going to be recycled.”

Recycling market maturity means those past charades have given way to smaller “hyperlocal” issues.

"People will change (their recycling behavior) with a little education and the right incentive." -National Resources Defense Council, Darby Hoover

For example, at a green conference in 2007, a Starbucks executive talked about his firm’s successes in diverting the bulk of its solid waste.

But even with all their recycling efforts, from the executive suite down to each store’s baristas, he had trouble with one store.

That store’s customers, he said, kept writing him letters to complain about not being able to recycle glass bottles for a type of juice available at the store. They argued they could recycle bottles at home, so why couldn’t Starbucks do it at their store?

The reality was that the commercial waste disposal firm for that store wouldn’t accept glass as part of their contract, while the firm contracted with the local government to pick up residential recyclables accepted glass. The letter-writers could have simply taken the bottles home.

That anecdote shows the challenges faced by firms with both a complex commercial footprint and a well-known brand, says Jim Hanna, Starbucks’ director of environmental impact.

He points out that while Starbucks diverts about 70 percent of its solid waste, most of that waste is “back of house”—cardboard boxes, used coffee grounds and plastic containers that customers never see.

Starbucks Coffee is poured into a cup.
Starbucks Coffee is poured into a cup.

The remaining 30 perfect is made up of the 4 billion cups the firm fills annually as well as other wrappers, each one bearing the firm’s mermaid logo—clearly visible both in the customer’s hand and discarded on a sidewalk.

“80 percent of our packaging is walking out the door,” says Hanna about this challenge. “So how do we create a recycling infrastructure so (customers) can recycle wherever they happen to be?”

The coffee chain is working on a “sustainable cup” program, to reformulate the composition to their cups to make them more recyclable and compostable, and to provide facilities to take the cups back as needed, even if local recycling rules don’t normally include beverage cups.

A 90-store trial in New York Citytakes cups back and, within 72 hours, the paper fiber is reused in other food packaging, like pizza boxes.

NRDC’s Hoover says this balancing act that Hanna and his employer are trying to achieve— between customer education and that same customer’s “entitlement” to create waste—is often abetted by the firms’ own marketing campaigns.

She points to bathroom tissue as an example. Once marketed in mid-20th century as a hygiene product, over time that morphed into a need for softness, with each sheet of paper requiring more paper fiber to achieve an ultimate cushiony feel.

It got out of control, she says. “Do you really need to have the equivalent of a mink (coat) to do your ablutions?”

But a greater environmental awareness is growing among consumers, she says, and her organization’s goal is make consumers think before buying—stopping future waste at the source —as well as informing them about how to recycle what’s left over.

Both Hoover and Starbucks’ Hanna agree there is a growing desire in consumers to do the right thing, even if it takes more effort on their part to understand what the ultimate fate of their garbage may be.

“People are used to the (current) recycling pathway” says Hoover. “But people will change behavior with a little education and the right incentive.”

  • Cool Interactive 50-State Map: Trash Across America

Making this recycling as seamless as possible with the rest of customers’ interaction with any firm is key to that, adds Hanna.

“Frankly, I want Starbucks to differentiate ourselves on the overall experience, with the barista and so on, not just on this,” he says, referring to the waste issue.

On Wednesday, September 29 at 9pm ET/PT, CNBC presents “Trash Inc: The Secret Life of Garbage,”a CNBC Original reported by Carl Quintanilla that takes an inside look at what happens to our garbage after we throw it out—where it goes, who touches it, and who makes money.