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The Business Value of Litter and Recyclable Materials

The Business Value of Litter and Recyclable Materials

Start a transportation and logistics degree at American Public University.

By Dr. William Oliver Hedgepeth
Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics Management, American Public University

When I was a youngster, I loved people who littered. My Saturdays were filled with walking around my hometown or riding my bicycle as far out of town as possible, because adults would litter the roadsides with glass Pepsi, Coke and Doctor Pepper bottles.

I would eagerly pick them up, place them in a bag and go to the nearest grocery store when the bag was full. The owner would pay two cents for each small bottle and five cents for larger bottles, which was my extra money for comic books, candy and popcorn at the movies. Back then, it wasn’t called recycling; it was just a good business for kids.

Littering is still with us. Trash bags, bottles, cans and all sorts of garbage are strewn across roads and highways. Sometimes, organized groups like the Boy Scouts pick up that litter and dispose of it in a trash can.

Litter Affects Pets and Wild Animals

While we have become a cleaner society today, litter can be harmful to dogs or cats as well as other small animals.

For example, your pet could eat litter that might get stuck in its throat. My Chihuahua would instinctively gobble down anything that smelled of food — a metal bolt, a piece of plastic wrap or even a razor blade. My friend’s dog died from eating plastic cord that was thrown away as trash.

Litter is a hazard for wild animals, too. At the beach, I have seen seagulls get tangled in plastic six-pack soda holders. More than one million seabirds and other animals are killed each year by plastic waste in our waterways.

Proper recycling, the prevention of littering and routine waste disposal can go a long way to eliminating the unnecessary death of animals.

Communities and Big Businesses Are Working to Reduce Trash

Some communities and businesses have taken steps to reduce waste. Plastic soda straws are now seen as an environmental blight and are banned in many jurisdictions, including Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Ignoring the ban carries a fine of $100 to $500.

In a similar vein, McDonalds is replacing plastic straws with paper ones in the UK as a test before the fast-food giant does the same in the U.S. The company’s drive to reduce public litter was prompted by the disastrous impact that plastic waste has on the oceans of the world. Coca-Cola has partnered with Green Peace to reduce ocean pollution from plastic straws, bottles and six-pack holders.

‘Oops!’ Stickers Now Being Placed on Recycling Bins

In my community, waste companies that pick up recyclable products are now attaching “Oops!” stickers to recycling bins. They serve as an embarrassing reminder to people to put their recyclable materials in their proper containers.

When I visited my local recycling center I was told that the proper items to put in a recycle container are paper, bottles and cans. But those cans should be washed clean, so they don’t contain any trace of food or liquids.

The sticker shows images of items that should not go into a recycle bin, such as:

  • Plastic bags or plastic wrap
  • Garbage bags or even bags of recyclables
  • Food or liquids
  • Styrofoam containers or packing materials
  • Items that could develop tangles, such as electric cords, water hoses or chains
  • Big items such as furniture, wood, plastic or metal

China Has Reduced Its Demand for US Recyclables

The Tidewater Fibre Corporation’s recycling managers told me that the U.S. faces a huge problem trying to sell our recycled litter to China. According to National Public Radio (NPR), “For decades, China has sorted through all this [trash] and used the recycled goods to propel its manufacturing boom.”

China will now accept only 0.5% of contaminated items sent to them in shipping containers. NPR notes, “The U.S. exports about one-third of its recycling, and nearly half goes to China.”

Previously, the percentage of contamination accepted from U.S. recyclable materials was 1.5%. The Verge notes that China’s ban on U.S. recycled products, now considered waste, means 111 million tons of recyclable materials have nowhere to go. One problem involves the cost of labor, which slows down the checking process in the U.S. and China that pulls out real trash from usable plastics, paper and metal.

And guess who pays the bill for the reverse logistics to ship that container back to the U.S. after it is rejected by China? We do.

One recycling manager told me that the issue comes down to “we have the supply, but they don’t have the demand” for our recycled waste products. But it seems that China will not have the last word on this issue. U.S. waste management companies are looking for other countries that do have a demand for such waste materials and can use it in their reverse logistics manufacturing business.

TFC managers hold out a glimmer of hope for expanding the China market. They said the 2022 Olympics in Beijing might cause Beijing to rethink its acceptance standards for U.S. recycled items.

But for now, China as a market for U.S. recyclable materials appears to be broken. However, it has created new business opportunities in the field of reverse logistics.

Teaching Students the Value of Recycling

Currently, companies like TFC are going into grade schools with an updated Litter Bug campaign that focuses on the importance of recycling rather than throwing recyclable materials into the trash. Today’s students must become more environmentally conscious; after all, they’ll be living in the world they helped to create.

About the Author

Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth is a full-time professor at American Public University (APU). He was program director of three academic programs: Reverse Logistics Management, Transportation and Logistics Management and Government Contracting. He was Chair of the Logistics Department at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Dr. Hedgepeth was the founding Director of the Army’s Artificial Intelligence Center for Logistics from 1985 to 1990 at Fort Lee, Virginia.



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