The Future of Recycling: Local Initiative or National Policy

Erica Balk
January 24, 2012 — 1,243 views  

Recycling is generally viewed as a responsibility of local governments. But increasing the national recycling rate will require going beyond the local playing field and creating an environment that favors recycling at the federal level.

The role of federal government in recycling

While recycling programs are developed at the local level, the long term success of recycling in the United States depends on policy implementation at the national level. EPR (Extended Producer Responsibility) and Cap and Trade show great promise for the eventual goal of zero landfilling, but they must be implemented beyond the local playing field.

In a capitalist society, policy that affects industry finances will have the greatest impact. Corporations will do the right thing if it pays to do so. Therefore recycling must become a more attractive financial option than landfilling.

It must either be the more cost-effective alternative, or it must have the potential to generate revenue. This means creating markets for recycled materials, establishing government procurement policies that favor the purchase of recycled products, implementing policies that will deter consumers from purchasing 'brown' products, and promoting a consumer shift to 'green' items.

It also means establishing a level playing field so that corporations can remain competitive while shifting to green manufacturing. If companies cannot compete in the marketplace due to the cost of manufacturing environmentally responsible products then the system will fail. Allowing the market to be flooded with cheap products from overseas while domestic manufacturers attempt to compete is sure to undermine the entire effort.

The role of local governments in recycling

Lawmakers are not likely to support these policies unless they have a clear consensus to do so from their constituency. Local leaders must act as advocates for recycling, not just within the community, but to the broader audience at the upper levels of government as well. Local leaders have a responsibility to educate the public and elected officials, and to advocate legislation that focuses on source reduction, limits what can be disposed of in the nation's landfills, and holds industry responsible for recycling its own waste and manufacturing 'green' products.

Local governments play an important role when it comes to stimulating recycling behavior at the household level. When developing a recycling program, leaders must take a systems thinking approach. Economics, convenience, education and outreach, culture, leadership and policy are not mutually exclusive factors in a program's success. Leaders should be mindful of developing a recycling system. A system consists of many interrelated parts, each of which affects the other. The presence or absence of any one component will not ensure success, nor by itself determine failure.

The first step in developing a recycling program is to acknowledge that each community is different. The culture of the community should be the determining factor in crafting recycling initiative. Cohesive communities that exhibit a high level of environmental concern will need fewer incentives. More effort will need to be expended in communities where environmental concern and cohesiveness are low. Local governments should focus on removing barriers, engaging the public, and implementing local policies that force a shift to pro-environmental behavior through either mandatory participation or financial incentives in the form of higher disposal costs.



Erica Balk publishes the Tips for Recycling blog at She is an MPA with over a decade of experience in the solid waste and recycling field. Visit for ways you can recycle at home, recycling games for kids, current news in the recycling field, and information for professionals looking to increase participation in their recycling programs.

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Erica Balk