A couple weekends ago, I attended the 2012 Net Impact Conference, which was hosted by the University of Maryland in Baltimore this year. If you’re unfamiliar with Net Impact, it is a 30,000-member nonprofit focused on mobilizing students and professionals to solve the world’s most pressing environmental and social problems through the public and private sector. I would personally describe Net Impact as an organization dedicated to mobilizing young professionals to make impacts with their careers. It’s an awesome organization.
At this year’s conference, I attended a wide variety of panels that related to climate change adaptation, green real estate, corporate impact, and bio-mimicry. There were also several keynotes from directors and presidents of Fortune 500 companies. Most of the time, I found myself in agreement with many of the environmental views and statements in the conference, but a couple interesting (and certainly debatable) things stuck out to me. Among them were statements from panelists speaking for Waste Management (WM), Monsanto, and Coca-Cola. WM will be addressed in this first post.
The president of Waste Management (the largest solid waste disposal company in the United States) spoke at the opening keynote session about his company’s commitment to recycling. What you should know is that Waste Management (WM) makes money by hauling trash to the landfill: the more mass they haul, the more they can charge. Recently, Waste Management made a major investment by partnering with Recyclebank, which is an innovate firm that provides rewards (through a point-gathering system) to residents who recycle. The more you recycle, the more points you can get, and you may redeem those points for rewards like gift cards. Recyclebank has therefore been able to vastly expand its reach through its partnership with Waste Management.
The partnership is an unlikely one, seeing as how WM would presumably lose money if people were to recycle more stuff than they throw away. According to WM’s president, the investment is part of the firm’s growing commitment to environmental stewardship. He was unclear about the impact of this investment on WM’s bottom line. During the course of the discussion, the moderator asked WM president something very interesting, and his answer made many audience members uneasy. Asked about the implications of the growing number of recycling technologies available, WM’s president stated that we would soon not have to worry about consumption, seeing as how the majority of things would be recycled. In other words, he stated that we are free to consume more and more because recycling technologies will ensure that waste is no longer landfilled.
I took issue with that for three reasons. First, the cutting-edge recycling technologies (e.g., single-stream recycling) to which WM refers are not widely available in the United States–not by a long shot. These technologies are expensive and require large capital expenditures that many municipalities are not ready to make. In addition, these technologies require that material sourcing be radically changed: if a new portfolio of products are to be recycled, their “ingredients” will need to be changed, and the upstream manufacturing process will likewise need to be retooled. Who will make that investment?
Second, the existence of better recycling technology/infrastructure does not guarantee that people will recycle. Think back to the last time you saw someone throw a bottle into the trash (I see it much too often on a daily basis). The availability of recycling does not translate directly into better consumer behavior. Whose responsibility will it be to educate consumers?
And finally, the notion of “being free to consume all we want just because we recycle” is not a sustainable one. Recycling materials and converting them new items requires time, energy, and resources; the whole process produces emissions (and is also not 100% efficient). I don’t believe that increased consumption–simply justified by more recycling–is aligned with environmentally sustainable living. I’d hope that many conference attendees agree with that as well.