By Kate Safin, Marketing & Member Services Manager

For several decades, the eco-minded consumer in the United States enjoyed access to reasonable and reliable recycling options. In the early 1990s, most recycling was sorted at home and dropped off at a local recycling or waste management center or picked up curbside. Then in the early 2000s, the convenience of single stream recycling took the “work” out of recycling; there was no more sorting and virtually everything could go into one bin from mixed plastic to mixed paper. It was convenient for the consumer and cost effective for the hauler. Better yet, there was a huge global market for these materials. Shipping freights delivering goods to the United States from China would carry back recycled materials from the U.S. free of charge.

Then in late 2017, China announced a ban on 24 materials and stricter standards on what it would accept from the United States. That announcement sent recycling and waste management in the United States into a state of upheaval. In May 2018, China imposed a 30-day ban on all imports of recyclables. Because there was no end market for many of the items being collected throughout the U.S., what once was “recyclable” was now trash, and waste managers had no choice but to landfill the items that were previously sent overseas. This is understandably very distressing news for avid recyclers, but this sudden disruption provides a rude awaking for all consumers that recycling isn’t a silver bullet in reducing waste. While the market may sort itself out and a new end market for recyclables could open up, the real key is to look to the 3R’s (Reuse, Reduce, Recycle) and prioritize reusing and reducing, and adding “repurposing” and “refusing” (as in, “No straw, thank you!”) to the mix.

At the Co-op, we make sustainability a priority in all we do. In response to the ever-changing waste management landscape and growing concerns from our membership, we worked to address and resolve as many challenges as possible within our organization as quickly as we could. Since September 2018, we have done independent research and worked with partner organizations to complete the following:

  • Participated in a “Responding to Recycling Changes” webinar hosted by National Cooperative Grocers (NCG).
  • Attended a “Responsible Waste Management” workshop hosted by Sustainable Pittsburgh and PNC Park.
  • Collected plastic straws as part of Sustainable Pittsburgh’s Straw Forward Program.
  • Made significant updates to our packaging to eliminate #1 plastic cups, introduce paper straws, and provide compostable to-go containers.
  • Provided a Recycling Awareness staff training course hosted by Pennsylvania Resources Council.
  • Gave away 60 zero waste utensil sets during our Annual Member Drive.

Sustainability initiatives are a key strategic focus for the coming year. In 2019, we will work with the Pennsylvania Resources Council’s ZeroWaste PA Small Business Program to identify ways to increase our waste diversion and work our way to an even higher level of sustainability. We invite you to do your part as a consumer to reduce, reuse, repurpose and refuse whenever possible. As you’ll see on the next page, at the Co-op we provide many pathways to achieving a zero waste lifestyle.