Undeterred by slump in recycling markets, Eco-Cycle stays focused on mission
“Eco-Cycle’s Missed Targets: What do you do when reduce, reuse, recycle doesn’t work?”
These provocative headlines and the lead suggested a slam piece against Eco-Cycle and Zero Waste, which I found ironic, given that Zero Waste practices are among the quickest and easiest ways for communities like ours to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that are fueling global warming.
Despite the sensational headlines, the bulk of the article was not a slam piece and fairly accurately described the perfect storm that recyclers around the globe, including Eco-Cycle, are facing: a plunge in oil prices; the Los Angeles port strike, which caused China and other Asian markets to stop buying recyclables from U.S. suppliers; and the strong U.S. dollar, which hurts exports across the board. Does that mean reduce, reuse, recycle doesn’t work? Hardly.
The Good News Inside the Bad News
The fact that Eco-Cycle is affected by this economic slump is actually a sign of success. Eco-Cycle is now the nation’s largest nonprofit recycler. We’re not niche anymore. Eco-Cycle is part of the global economy and we’re big enough that, like everyone else, we may take a hit when there’s a major economic downturn.
In the nearly 40 years that Eco-Cycle has been around, we’ve been through at least three significant slumps and remained fiscally sound. Market downturns are to be expected in any industry—just look at oil prices—and the bigger the industry, the bigger the potential impacts. We’ve always planned accordingly by building up healthy reserves in fat years to draw from in lean years. And even during lean years, we don’t lay people off or skimp on our mission. Markets will fluctuate, but recycling is here to stay. And so is Eco-Cycle.
A more accurate headline would have been:
“Eco-Cycle hits mission-based targets, despite market downturn.”
That would have acknowledged the impressive list of significant Zero Waste successes we’ve racked up even as markets for recyclable materials have declined.
Let’s Talk about Targets
The Camera’s headline and lead implied that Eco-Cycle missed “financial” targets. It’s true that we’ve dipped into the red in recent years and tapped some of our reserves, but at the same time, we’ve been making investments that will make us stronger over time.
More importantly, I want to emphasize that Eco-Cycle is a nonprofit, social enterprise. Our “targets” are set around our mission, which is building Zero Waste communities.
The types of targets we set include goals like making every school in Boulder County a sustainable Green Star School, adding at least one new recycling opportunity each year at our Center for Hard-to-Recycle Materials (CHaRM), helping local governments reach their Zero Waste goals, and passing Zero Waste ordinances.
As a social enterprise, we support our “non-profitable,” mission-based work with profit- generating ventures such as working with businesses toward Zero Waste, and processing and marketing Boulder County’s recyclables at the Boulder County Recycling Center (BCRC). These profit-generating efforts don’t cover all of Eco-Cycle's non-profit expenditures, so we make up the rest as any non-profit does, with foundation grants, government contracts and grants, event sponsorships, and individual donations.
Targets We Hit: Moving our Mission and Community Forward
Turn the page to the inside story, and you’ll see another sensational headline, “Eco-Cycle’s Lost Decade.” Far from being “lost,” the last decade has been packed with successes and innovations:
As the operator of the publicly owned BCRC, a role we’ve proudly and successfully served since the facility opened in 2001, we received an independent review a year ago by Kessler Consulting Inc. The audit concluded that the BCRC is “a well-run MRF” (materials recovery facility).
- We launched our nationally acclaimed Green Star Schools program, which reaches tens of thousands of students each year, and engages nearly half of all public schools in Boulder County.
- We continued to grow our one-of-a-kind CHaRM, which accepts more types of materials than any other facility we know of in the world, recycling materials that are more challenging to recycle, like electronics, Styrofoam, plastic bags, textiles, and even yoga mats!
- We kept well over half a million tons of recyclables out of the landfill and circulating in the economy.
- We worked to win and implement new local Zero Waste policies, including but not limited to:
o Curbside recycling (2007) and curbside composting (2014) in Lafayette
o Curbside composting in Louisville (2009)
o Single-use plastic and paper bag fee imposed in the city of Boulder (2012)
o Universal recycling and composting at all businesses and properties within the city of Boulder (2015)
- We launched our Eco-Cycle International program to help other communities around the nation who are pursuing Zero Waste as a program to fight climate change, create local jobs, and conserve natural resources.
- We stopped 366,000 pounds of junk mail for nearly 5,500 Boulder County residents (2011-2013)
How to Invigorate a Slumped Market
We can’t single-handedly shift global markets, but we can take steps to strengthen our local recycling economy. Here’s how:
Give the BCRC a boost. We can continue to improve our public facility.The county and Eco-Cycle are pursuing technology upgrades to increase efficiency at the BCRC. These upgrades, such as a new fiber baler and optical sorter, mean that the BCRC will be able to accept additional materials, generating a favorable return-on-investment and an improvement in revenues.
Recycle more. Some recyclables are worth more than others and tend to retain value even during market downturns, such as aluminum, cardboard, office paper, and milk jugs. Yet even in Boulder, a national recycling leader, residents and businesses are sending too much of this stuff to the landfill. For example, every year Boulder throws away an estimated 1.8 million pounds of aluminum annually worth close to one million dollars.
Recycle right. Contamination is still a costly issue. For example, BCRC employees have to stop work every day to remove hundreds of plastic bags that get tangled in sorting machines. We publish a Dirty Dozen guide to help you know what NOT to throw in the bin.
Dispel the myth that “recycling is free.” Trash collection isn’t free; neither is recycling, but recycling gets you more for your money: more green jobs, more new businesses, less pollution, less destruction of natural areas and habitat, fewer greenhouse gases heating up the planet, and the satisfaction of knowing that you’re doing something to make the world a better place for future generations.
Eco-Cycle remains passionately dedicated to helping communities achieve Zero Waste here in Colorado and beyond. We’re excited about moving forward in 2016 with BCRC infrastructure improvements, an exciting statewide campaign to boost Colorado’s 11% recycling rate, and much more.
I hope that clears up any confusion the Camera’s headlines may have created. Your support is deeply appreciated, and of course, if you have questions, ideas, or concerns, I’d love to hear from you! Contact me here or leave a comment below.
For a Sustainable Future,
Suzanne Jones, Executive Director