The Sustainability Consortium: Circular Management of Recyclables

The Need: This project was driven by the need to better understand the system in which recyclable materials are managed on a regional level. Improved transparency and coordination among stakeholders is needed in order to facilitate the circular management of materials and make progress on roadblocks for difficult to recycle materials such as plastic film. This work also aimed to generate buy in from local stakeholders by exploring the economic development potential of improving regional recycling systems.

The Solution: TSC partnered with Northwest Arkansas Council and The University of Arkansas Center for Business and Economic Research to convene local stakeholders and conduct a project to quantify the volume of recyclable materials (including plastic film) managed through municipal recycling systems in the Northwest Arkansas region. An economic analysis was conducted to understand the economic development potential of improved circular materials management, including the feasibility of developing new end markets for recyclable materials in the region. Based on learnings and feedback from local stakeholders, TSC outlined recommendations for improving the circularity of recyclable materials through innovation and coordination between recycling system stakeholders.

What makes it particularly smart or circular? The project focused on creating a shared vision and improved coordination among regional materials management leaders, corporate sustainability leaders, and municipal and regional leaders. This approach created buy-in from local stakeholders resulting in the implementation of many of TSC’s recommendations by the Northwest Arkansas Council. Northwest Arkansas is made up of numerous cities and counties with two solid waste districts and several municipal recycling programs. Fostering communication and coordination between these diverse stakeholders opened several opportunities for improving the circular management of recyclables including the sharing of best practices and the potential for aggregation. An important insight from the work is that regardless of how much technical infrastructure we put into the waste management system, if we do not create a shared vision within communities and improve the coordination of people and data to create transparency, we will not successfully reduce the impacts of plastic waste to the Earth and People.

Results, Benefits, and Outcomes to Date: This project culminated in the release of a report that outlined recommendations for the region to improve the circular management of recyclables, an analysis that outlines the economic development potential of improving the capture rate of different materials, as well as a case study on plastic film. The Northwest Arkansas Council has begun to implement many of the recommendations from the project, including hiring a regional recycling coordinator. The stakeholder group created through this work has continued to grow and collaborate under the direction of the Northwest Arkansas Council. One learning from this work is that data are currently managed in inconsistent ways which creates challenges when trying to communicate to end-markets about the opportunity to source materials from this region. Through this project, we worked collaboratively with stakeholders to create a standardized reporting form to build consistent data collection between the region and the State of Arkansas. Finally, a case study on plastic film was created in partnership with a commercial recycler, providing a window into how plastic film is managed and helping to identify both challenges and opportunities for improving its recyclability.

Which of the Pact’s 4 Targets does your work help achieve? 2, 3

How are you communicating your success? We are communicating success with partners, TSC members, and we wrote a report and shared a press release at the time of the completion of the report.

What’s Next? We are actively seeking another region (multi-city) to conduct a similar project.

Roadblocks & Lessons Learned: One roadblock to the process was finding that accessing data for materials managed in the region, both municipal and commercial, as very difficult. For municipal data, there were inconsistencies in data collection and reporting making it challenging to interpret. For commercial data, there were proprietary issues with accessing the data. We overcame this by focusing on publicly available data and working with stakeholders to create a standardized data collection form. Another finding is that it is key to partner with a centralized organization within a region that can convene leading stakeholders in a neutral and unbiased way. This was the role of the Northwest Arkansas Council, an economic development organization made up municipal members.

Core Team, Partners, & Participants: The Sustainability Consortium, Northwest Arkansas Council, University of Arkansas Center for Business and Economic Research, TSC Corporate members, local municipal leaders, Solid Waste Districts

Time Frame: Spring 2018 to Spring 2020

Budget: $200,000, The project was funded through a gift from the Northwest Arkansas Council to TSC

Quote: “Efforts to coordinate between recycling programs and create a common vision for circularity in the region are needed to drive action and build transparency, trust, and recycling participation,” said Jennifer Park, TSC’s Manager of Collective Action. “It is so exciting to see the innovative efforts happening in the material management space in Northwest Arkansas.”

Company/Organization Information: The Sustainability Consortium was founded in 2009, TSC is administered by the University of Arkansas and Arizona State University


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