Kate Davenport and Lynn Hoffman

How to Make Recycling Work

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Kate Davenport and Lynn Hoffman
Kate Davenport and Lynn Hoffman, photo by Sarah Whiting

Since we were kids, both of us have been endlessly curious about how things work, intrigued by complex problems, and motivated to be of benefit to our global community. Together, we lead Eureka Recycling — a Minneapolis-based, mission-driven non-profit with an annual operating budget of $15 million. Our social enterprise is forging and demonstrating a new path for waste reduction.

Working at Eureka (15 years for Lynn, 8 for Kate) has been a bottomless well of opportunity to wrestle with strategies ranging from the daily operations of trucks, machines, and more than 100 staff, to advocating for local and national policy that will shape a future without waste. We look at these issues with a “triple bottom line” lens: how do we find a balance of environmental, social, and economic benefit for our community?

About three years ago, we were given the opportunity to step into the roles of co-presidents of Eureka. Not long after, we began to experience the biggest upheaval the recycling industry has seen.

In early 2017, China instituted a policy called the “National Sword,” effectively cutting off any imports of U.S.-sorted recyclables. Up to that point, China had been buying over 40 percent of all sorted recyclables from the U.S. When those markets closed, there was a major glut in the domestic markets, driving the prices for those materials down precipitously.

Even Eureka, which focuses on local and regional markets, has been seriously impacted.

What Happened?

It’s a complex story, but it can be boiled down to one underlying problem: As an industry and a society, we were measuring the wrong things.

As communities set goals for waste reduction, and brands faced pressure to make their packaging recyclable, the recycling industry was being consolidated and driven by large waste corporations. We saw an increased focus on measuring “diversion rates” — the volume of material that was collected in a recycling cart rather than a trash cart. This metric became mistaken for the goal, and resulted in a push to add more and more to the recycling bin. As long as it could be sold to someone somewhere, we ticked the box and called it a success.

The push to add items to the recycling cart, coupled with the waste haulers’ push for efficiency and profit, resulted in lower quality materials being sold to supply chains that make new products from recycled content.

The whole house of cards was relying on a Chinese economy that was so hungry for the materials that they would buy almost anything we were selling. What we were selling included a lot of contaminated materials.

The house of cards fell when China became the first to reject our materials. Countries like India and Malaysia have followed. The U.S. is facing a reckoning with our consumption. We can’t recycle our way out of this.

The question we as an industry and a community is now asking is this: Is recycling still worth it?

If our measure of success is high profits, maybe not. But we think it is time to ask ourselves a different, simple, and important question: Why do we recycle?

Everyone has their own motivations, but there are common goals: A healthy, secure future. A thriving, equitable community. Drinkable water. Breathable air.

If we are measuring success based on those indicators, recycling is more important than ever. We have to do it right. We are faced with an opportunity to re-imagine recycling as a cornerstone of the future that we want, not just an action that makes us feel better about consumption.

We need to make sure our measures of success reflect these real goals. Instead of asking “Can we recycle that?,” let us ask “Are there better alternatives for that packaging? Something more durable that can be reused? Or maybe we don’t need it?”

As local consumers in particular, we all need to be asking these questions of ourselves, of the brands we purchase, and of our local, state, and national representatives that set the policy that can fundamentally create systems change.