Change Leader Full Interview: Recycling Our Way to a Stronger ‘Circular Economy’
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Scott Mouw is senior director of technical assistance for The Recycling Partnership, a national nonprofit dedicated to improving the performance of the U.S. recycling system. The Recycling Partnership uses funding from major corporate partners to improve the recycling systems in cities and towns across the nation, increasing the amount of recycled materials in the supply chain. Prior to joining the Partnership, Mouw directed North Carolina’s recycling program, overseeing policies and strategic efforts to enhance material recovery, increase public access to recycling, and grow the state’s recycling economy.
V1 Media: Can you provide a brief professional background?
Mouw: Before I joined the Partnership, I spent many years as the state recycling director in North Carolina. In that role, I was tasked to help improve local recycling programs; get counties to run efficient, good programs to recover a whole range of recyclable materials, curbside materials, electronics, textiles, construction waste, you name it. In doing that, I worked closely with the private sector because when you collect and recycle materials, they need to then move into the private marketplace to be used again. That was my key role there within policy and infrastructure issues. Before that, I was a solid-waste director for a county in North Carolina, so I ran a whole gamut of operations for the solid-waste and the recycling programs.
V1 Media: What do you do now with The Recycling Partnership?
Mouw: At The Recycling Partnership, I provide technical assistance to communities across the country that are looking to improve their recycling programs. Most programs throughout the country could use help to increase efficiency. We know that there are places throughout the United States where there are no recycling programs or very low-performing programs, and we’re trying to identify those programs and educate them and the community to create better systems.
V1 Media: How would you rate the U.S. recycling system? What are some of its strengths and weaknesses?
Mouw: The U.S. recycling system is on a solid foundation, however it’s only capturing less than 50% of recyclables, meaning it could be recovering a lot more material. As our own numbers show, just from curbside materials alone, there are an estimated 22 million tons of paper and packaging still left to recover in the United States from single-family homes. We want to see the recycling access number—the access of citizens to efficient and convenient services—increase through time. That will mean tonnage that goes hand-in-hand with that access. There is always room for improvement. At The Recycling Partnership, we see existing programs that capture 50 or 60 percent of recyclables. We also see programs that function well below that, and there are multiple communities that could establish new programs to begin capturing recyclables.
V1 Media: How do you see recycling in the domain of infrastructure, and what are some examples?
Mouw: Infrastructure for recycling might look a little different than what many people normally think of in terms of infrastructure, which are roads, bridges and etc. Recycling infrastructure definitely needs those types of things, such as hard building infrastructure and processing facilities.
There’s also a need for what I like to call “rolling infrastructure.” Communities, as they run recycling programs, need to invest in critical equipment to move those systems forward. As an example, the city of Nashville has a great recycling program, but they could recover another 13,000 or so tons a year by changing the service frequency from once a month to every-other-week recycling. To get to that point, the city would have to invest about $3 million in trucks to be able to offer that more-convenient service and increase the tonnage. We would view that as infrastructure.
As the city of Nashville looks at all the things it needs to build to keep its growth going and to be a really high-functioning city – recycling and solid-waste management is a big part of that. In their case, they need trucks more than roads and bridges to make that happen. So we see, across the country, real opportunities to invest in infrastructure along those lines and, then, also opportunities to develop other physical recycling infrastructure, like processing centers and the things that move materials back into the marketplace.
To give you a rural example, and get a little bit into the weeds of how recycling works, most places in the country are usually co-mingling material into a bin. So you put all the materials in one bin, which then has to go somewhere to be separated into the specific commodities: paper, aluminum, steel cans, plastic bottles, etc. That’s all done at a material recovery facility (MRF) or “murf,” as it’s called.
As you can imagine, MRFs need a lot of volume. They need to be scaled up to be really cost-efficient and profitable, and that means MRFs can’t be everywhere, so they’re heavily concentrated in urban areas. That leaves a bit of a gap for rural areas when it comes to access to processing.
There’s a really key and easy piece of the infrastructure puzzle that can help rural communities take advantage of co-mingled collection, and that’s a transfer station, which is like a spoke that can feed the hub of an urban MRF. With infrastructure dollars available to rural communities that type of infrastructure can put them in a place where they can expand the programs, and get ready access to material processing.
V1 Media: What can the builders and contractors do to recycle materials back into the system?
Mouw: On a very broad level, they can help be advocates for a strong recycling system in the United States. We have an enormous amount of promise in economic growth when it comes to the recovery of materials. In simple terms, manufacturers can choose between two sources of material. They can get it from nature, from mining, etc., or they can get it from materials that we’re cycling back into the economy, which has been shown to be much more energy and cost efficient. To achieve those advantages, we all carry an obligation to make sure recycling programs are functioning at a high level across the country.
There may be additional opportunities for companies involved in traditional infrastructure to be part of constructing the recycling system. For example, in rural areas that need hard infrastructure to put materials on the road and get those materials to urban processing centers, there’s a role to play by contractors in helping make sure that infrastructure is built and functioning effectively. I think contractors will see that there’s an opportunity for them to be part of that process.
V1 Media: Is there anything in particular with respect to the actual materials? From the construction standpoint, is there a similar sorting and reuse of materials such as concrete and steel? Which materials work better in that kind of program, and which ones don’t?
Mouw: Up to now, I’ve been talking about the items that you and I generate in our homes. However, there are many different types of materials generated through different types of economic activities, including building and construction. An array of leftover materials is generated from demolition and construction of buildings, roads and bridges. There’s been a steady growth of infrastructure to recycle those materials, whether it’s taking concrete and asphalt and using it back into roads, or making sure leftover steel gets back to steel manufacturers across the country. The LEED process tries to encourage energy and environmental efficiency in building, and it rewards people who recycle in the course of building and demolishing structures. At The Recycling Partnership, we see this as an opportunity for anybody building any kind of structure to make sure that the waste products also get recycled.
V1 Media: Is it up to individual contractors to do it on their own, or are there any companies or organizations trying to facilitate the recycling of construction materials?
Mouw: Yes, there are trade associations like the Construction Materials Recycling Association (CMRA) that are great resources for builders who want to learn more about recycling. State recycling programs like the one in North Carolina spend a lot of time and effort to encourage recycling of what is called C & D—construction and demolition material. State recycling programs and other help C & D processors build their facilities, and find markets and sources of material.
Many times contractors need to search out and find recycling options. In many cases, local or state government recycling offices can facilitate finding recycling options. In the state of North Carolina, for example, we kept a recycling markets directory, and if you were building a building or a road or bridge, and you called our office and said, “Hey, I want to recycle the materials that I’m generating as waste,” we would then connect you to the private or public facilities that are recycling those materials.
Any contractor that’s moving forward with a project that wants to include recycling as part of that project, whether it’s demolition or construction, would want to reach out to their local city, county, and state to see what types of informational resources or facilities are offered.
V1 Media: What is a “circular economy”?
Mouw: A circular economy is a concept of making sure that materials, as they’re generated and as discards—whether from your home or a business or a construction activity—are returned to a purposeful use, that they go back into the economy and find their way back into new products. Through the activities of getting collected and processed and then manufactured again, the materials become catalysts of economic activity, including job creation and capital investment. That’s opposed to a more linear model, where we would take materials, make products, use the products, and send them to permanent disuse in a landfill. So as opposed to “take, make, waste,” what we’re talking about is take, make and then recycle back into the system. That’s what the circular economy is all about.
V1 Media: Would you talk about some of the things you’re doing to try and present your case to government leaders to make the change you think is needed?
Mouw: Whether it’s local or state or federal decision-makers, The Recycling Partnership is trying to make sure everyone thinks about infrastructure broadly, and understands that by supporting recycling infrastructure, they will have beneficial effect on the competitiveness of manufacturing in the United States. It is important to think of recycling infrastructure as part of a larger infrastructure push that will result in efficient supply of materials to the manufacturers across the country. We want decision-makers to think about infrastructure in nuanced ways that include things such as helping communities increase the effectiveness of their recycling programs.
V1 Media: Do you think “infrastructure recycling” will be an element of any upcoming infrastructure legislation?
Mouw: Time will tell but at The Recycling Partnership we know there’s a role to play for recycling in any infrastructure initiative, not only from the act of construction and the resulting jobs, buildings, products and economy activity, but the more-powerful effect of actually returning cost-effective materials to the economy and helping manufacturers be competitive. So there’s a double payback from recycling infrastructure. As you put that infrastructure in place, you’re obviously creating jobs, but then you also create a supply of materials that feeds the U.S. economy.
V1 Media: If there aren’t any federal mandates or assistance for infrastructure recycling, what would you recommend builders do to proceed in the most circular, beneficial way?
Mouw: I think that starts with looking at the fundamental benefits of creating a really high-functioning recycling system in the United States. Even in the absence of federal action, state and local leaders will find that there are some huge advantage from making sure we recycling is working well in the United States. In North Carolina, for example, we were able to show that by developing strong local programs and supporting a strong state recycling economy we were able to create 17,000 direct recycling jobs. That is just one state out of many that can continue to grow a robust recycling economy which starts with making sure there’s a good, consistent, stable and growing supply of materials collected. It’s important to note, that even if the federal government doesn’t come through with assistance for that type of infrastructure, there’s still a real need and opportunity for local and state leaders to develop it.
That’s part of the role our industry plays, and it is part of the role The Recycling Partnership plays. We have funding from more than 40 major companies ranging from Coca-Cola to Procter & Gamble to Target, who really want that infrastructure to succeed. They’ve put us to work to make sure that state and local leaders see the need and the benefits.
Again, we want decision-makers to be very broad-minded in how they look at infrastructure and where the opportunities are, and to keep thinking about a supply of materials that could help grow the economy. If they helped us invest in the infrastructure to make sure that supply is solid and growing, it’s going to have huge benefits that will multiply through time.