Sustainable Development has three interconnected pillars: environmental, economic, and social. The environmental pillar is related to ecosystem protection, conservation of natural resources, and minimizing environmental damage. The economic pillar is related to the development of profitable solutions and enabling growth. The social pillar is related to human rights, equity, and equal opportunity for people of all genders, races, ethnicities, religions, and nations of origin. Each pillar is fundamental in creating a more sustainable future, however, in recycling, most of the discussion around program improvement remains in the environmental and economic sectors, not the social.
The recently published SPC Study on the Availability of Recycling Programs describes the availability of recycling programs in the United States. However, understanding whether or not programs exist that collect packaging materials for recycling is just the surface of addressing equity in access to recycling. A mixed method approach to analysis of access to recycling programs is crucial to removing barriers and making recycling programs truly available to and usable by all US residents.
Barriers to Access
In the United States, access to available recycling programs is complicated primarily by location. Rural communities have different location based recycling program challenges than urban or suburban communities. Sprawl, prevalence of different dwelling types, communities’ financial resources to invest in recycling infrastructure, and the quality of recycling programs available are all interconnected. Individuals’ inherent levels of interest in environmental issues influences whether or not they participate in environmental behaviors. Systemic barriers, such as a lack of curbside recycling pick up, are even more influential of behavioral outcomes than individual interest in participating.
In the 2020-2021 SPC Centralized Study on the Availability of Recycling Programs, multi-family dwelling residents are more likely to have no access to recycling programs. 23.3% of multifamily dwellers had no recycling program access compared to just 3.4% of single-family home residents. Additionally, multi-family dwelling residents were more likely to only have access to drop-off recycling, with 46.0% of residents of multi-family dwelling residents having drop-off only access compared to 26.3% of single-family home residents.
The inconvenience of drop-off only access is magnified by the increased likelihood of apartment dwellers not owning a vehicle. While a vehicle is often required to transport recyclables to a drop-off collection program, 26% of apartment dwellers do not own a vehicle (compared to 9% of all households). Because apartment dwellers also have a lower median income compared to single-family home dwellers, this barrier to recycling is unfairly placed on households with fewer financial resources to overcome it. Improvement in the availability of curbside recycling for multi-family housing and or improving the convenience of drop-off recycling by adding more collection sites in more centralized locations that do not require vehicles to access are necessary.
While most multi-family housing complexes are more likely to be located in urban or suburban environments, recycling access challenges are also found in rural communities. One such example is the lack of curbside and convenient drop-off programs for waste headed to both landfill or recycling in the Navajo Nation. Partially due to the waste collection vehicles’ inability to drive on dirt roads, the lack of access to safe and convenient recycling programs has lead to illegal dumping. One example of a tribal nation’s development of a robust and convenient recycling program that has overcome challenges of sprawl and underfunding is the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma’s Recycling Program. While there are federal grants available to increase access to recycling, more investment in tribally operated recycling facilities is necessary to make recycling access equitable for all tribal nations.
Another factor limiting the opportunity to participate in recycling programs is the lack of accessibility in recycling. 32.2 million of US residents have vision loss. Which, due to current design practices, can limit the amount of product information that is usable on a package. Visual labeling on packages is currently the most prevalent tool for communicating recycling instructions, and graphics are often used on collection bins. Without additional intervention, the status quo has unnecessary barriers for visually impaired consumers interested in recycling and composting. Built environment improvements and the integration of apps and tools like Navilens into the package design process are necessary to improve accessibility. Without widespread adoption of accessibility best practice or universal design, recycling programs will not be able to adequately address the goal of reduced inequality and the social pillar of sustainable development.
Improving recycling program accessibility through program design is an important step to take to increase recycling program participation. Equalizing access to recycling pick up to that of landfill destined waste is another area with room for program design improvement. Consider the design of the collection receptacles and if they adequately meet the needs of participants. Bins often require indoor space to prevent wind-caused littering, while carts can hold more recyclables and are more weather resistant. Allowing participants to choose which style or receptacle is the best match for their living situation could make participation more equitable.
Another consideration that could be explored in much more depth is the cost of participation in the recycling program and who bears that cost. Participation is hindered when residents have to both opt-in and pay for recycling collection. Exploring other models of recycling program funding is one step to making recycling accessible to people living in economic precarity.
While currently recycling programs are theoretically available for 91% of the US population, we do not yet have equal access to those programs for all US residents. As we work for equal access to recycling programs, location choice of recycling facilities and the potential environmental hazards to communities in close proximity needs to be considered so that marginalized groups do not face additional negative health consequences. Achieving equal access to recycling programs is one part of environmental justice and addressing the social and economic barriers to recycling is one crucial step in building an equitable, circular economy.