U.S. cities spend billions of dollars each year transporting waste to landfills that are often not even in the same state.
Much of that waste is recyclable. The problem many cities face is that they lack access to recycling facilities with infrastructure sophisticated enough to process materials besides paper, cardboard and basic plastics.
Instead, municipalities often end up paying landfills to take the hard-to-recycle plastics and glass because recycling companies lack the technology to deal with them. Estimates of how much American waste was actually diverted from landfills from 2010-2012 range from 34 percent to as low as 21.4 percent.
But while municipalities rarely have enough capital to invest in cutting-edge recycling facilities, it turns out some of the country’s biggest consumer goods companies do. And they’re willing to invest to build effective recycling systems in the U.S.
Put those funds in a pot, and you have the Closed Loop Fund. Ron Gonen, former New York City Deputy Commissioner of Sanitation, Recycling and Sustainability, left his position in 2014 to start a new project. The goal: to catalyze a boom in municipal recycling infrastructures.
The result was a fund that aims to reach $100 million from nearly a dozen of the country's biggest corporations, including
Gonen visited the company’s headquarters in Atlanta in late-2016 to give stakeholders an update on CLF’s recent findings. He cited projects in Baltimore, Memphis and Quad Cities, Iowa, that have shown promise in developing more efficient recycling systems in those cities. This progression, he says, will benefit all parties involved—municipalities, recycling companies, and corporations that fund CLF—if the concept is implemented in more American cities.
“We want to move the conversation from ‘This is the right thing to do’ to ‘This is a big business opportunity,’” Gonen said.
The $15 million facility in Baltimore, which received $2 million from the fund, accepts hard-to-recycle plastics and transforms the materials into plastic flakes that the company can sell to manufacturers.
If similar facilities were to be built in other areas of the country, municipalities could make money from waste rather than pay for its disposal. There would also be more recycled plastic available for consumer goods companies to use in their packaging.
“We want our bottles and cans to be recycled,” said Sarah Dearman, sustainable packaging program director,
As CLF makes zero-interest loans to municipalities (and below-market loans to recycling companies like the QRS plant in Baltimore), Gonen wants to make sure those investments are funding projects that will significantly reduce the amount of waste going to landfills, but will also be able to repay the loan five years later.
One of those projects took place in Memphis, Tenn., where CLF poured $3.25 million into the city’s first single-stream recycling program. Memphis previously had a dual-stream program and limited access to curbside recycling. The city also spent $7 million a year transporting waste to landfills.
CLF saw an opportunity to reduce that waste and made a joint contribution with the City of Memphis to deliver a total of 100,000 single-stream recycling carts to Memphis residents. CLF estimates that with a system far more convenient for citizens, the Memphis program will divert approximately 48,000 tons of waste from landfills.
“We’re trying to create models we can replicate in others cities as well,” Gonen said. “There are a lot of players out there we want to work with.”