“Professionals in this role need both technical knowledge and basically the art of diplomacy.”
“The important thing that all residents know about recycling is it is as you stated particular to your local area, and they need to become educated on how to manage those materials in their area.”
“It’s an integral part of our Pennsylvania economy and environmental protection. For example, with regards to the economy, there are in excess of 66,000 direct jobs associated with recycling in the commonwealth.”
“People don’t think about what they put in the bin all the time, and then they many times increase the cost of recycling.”
“Our goal is to provide best practices to the districts and the decision-makers, give them recommendations on how to manage the recyclables and organics and share the successes of those schools.”
“County recycling coordinators they have access to both great classroom training activities that they themselves can come into the school and do a hands-on activity, kind of give the teacher a break for an hour and let somebody else come in and do a class.”
“The success of your program shouldn’t be based on minimizing cost or a recycling rate. It should be based on how you better manage your materials.”
“The county recycling coordinators can come out and do an assessment. That’s actually a free resource, so make sure to take advantage of that.”
Q: What does the Professional Recyclers of Pennsylvania do, and for whom?
A (Jennifer): Basically the Professional Recyclers of Pennsylvania is an association of over 360 individuals and businesses representing both public and private sectors. Our members are involved in the management of residential and commercial recycling programs throughout Pennsylvania. For example, we have members who work for Republic Waste Management, Penn Waste, solid waste authorities, cities, townships, Newman Paperboard, Westchester University, the DEP, just to name a few. As you can see, there was quite a good representation. I’ll just clarify and say that while each of these individuals is enthusiastic about environmental protection, it’s actually their job. That’s why the professional recyclers, as opposed to the hobby recyclers.
Q: That makes sense, Jennifer.
A (Jennifer): Yeah, there’s sometimes a distinction there. Our members host a number of projects. Their primary responsibility is to work with residences, commercial entities, haulers and vendors to make sure that material that has been designated for recycling is collected cleanly, efficiently and is marketable on the other end. As you can guess, professionals in this role need both technical knowledge and basically the art of diplomacy. They have to be able to work with everybody and negotiate different situations. So PROP provides a network of industry professionals that can help the beginner and the long-time professional to develop and improve their knowledge and to basically sustain a successful recycling program in their region.
Q: Okay. This is a statewide organization. In what ways do you educate the communities on the work that you do?
A (Shelly): PROP answers any questions that come into the PROP office via phone and email, and we also work closely to assist our county and municipal coordinators if they receive a question from their community that maybe needs a little bit more or further clarification, and maybe they don’t have the exact answer to it. That’s pretty much what PROP does to educate the professionals so that the professionals can then go educate their community.
A (Jennifer): Just in addition to what Shelly pointed out, PROP runs a nationally recognized certification program. Basically what we do is we train the county and municipal coordinators on how to carry out their specific responsibilities. For example, they cover everything from contracting to understanding recycling economics, markets, data management, grant applications, education practices for when they are trying to educate the residents, zero waste programs, special collection events. So as you can see, there is quite a host of responsibilities that our folks are involved in.
Basically PROP is in a support and resource role. We provide specialized education for the county and municipal recycling coordinators, and then the county and municipal professionals in turn educate the community.
Q: Okay, that makes sense. There’s a lot of intricacies to recycling it seems. For example, the different types of plastics, some of which are recyclable and some are not, and additional challenges, the recyclability varies from location to location. So what should the residents of Pennsylvania know about recycling in Pennsylvania?
A (Larry): The important thing that all residents know about recycling is it is as you stated particular to your local area, and they need to become educated on how to manage those materials in their area. One of the things that we worked towards moving is moving towards more uniformity for recycling at work, home and at play. And as we continue to grow the program, we expect that it will become more uniform and make it easier.
Also, things that Pennsylvania residents need to know about recycling is it’s an integral part of our Pennsylvania economy and environmental protection. For example, with regards to the economy, there are in excess of 66,000 direct jobs associated with recycling in the commonwealth. A lot of people don’t know that. It’s pretty safe to say that you have a relative or you know somebody that works in the recycling industry. So that’s very important. The amount of economic gains that are contributed to the gross state product, are in excess of $22 billion annually, which is very important for people to know. They need to know that their recycling means business, it means jobs for their neighbors, their friends and their relatives.
From an environmental standpoint, they also need to know that it helps fight the environmental challenges we’re facing with regards to greenhouse gas emissions, reducing those directly improving and impacting climate change. Importantly, it saves nearly 300 million BTUs of energy each year by using recycled content. Those are some of the important environmental factors that they need to know.
As they look to optimize their material, it’s very important that they only recycle what’s part of their program. They clean and dry before they put it in the bin. They also secure their bin at the curb. By doing those things, making sure those items are free of food and liquids, it creates a good product that will be recycled and come back to them in the form of a new product.
Q: So what you just described has to do with the optimal reuse of discarded items. That’s sort of the optimal scenario then.
A (Larry): Yeah, that’s correct. Preparing it, so you lessen the amount of work needed to prepare it to go into a new product. By removing those foods and liquids, you help the process along.
Q: That’s I think so important to know and to note just that little step of rinsing and cleaning out the items ahead of time, that can help the process. I think that’s so important for the public to know. What do you see as the biggest challenges in the current recycling chain or services in PA and what can be done to improve those areas?
A (Larry): One of the biggest challenges is people want to recycle, the emergence of single stream recycling tech collection, which encourages people to put a bunch of things in the bin. With that said, people don’t think about what they put in the bin all the time, and then they many times increase the cost of recycling. The number of single stream facilities to process those materials that are collected single stream, is limited. There might be 15 to 17 facilities in the commonwealth, and we need to continue to expand that infrastructure so as we strive to collect more, it works.
And of course, as noted, plastics are a particular challenge because people want lighter packaging. Packaging is not being designed for recyclability; it’s being designed to provide security from retail associations and to catch the eye of consumers. So one of the things that we need to do is start to look towards designing plastics to be recycled. You don’t need one million and one colors in your plastic. You don’t need all these different shapes and sizes of plastic. You most certainly don’t need unnecessary packaging. So I think as we move to get plastic under control, that will be a big plus.
When you look at the other materials, they’re readily recyclable. There’s certain challenges with glass. The thing to note about glass is we’re not generating more than we were a couple of years ago, we’re not generating less. We’ve kind of come to that equilibrium where once we master managing the amount of recycled glass we collect, we’re there.
Q: So plastic is kind of a leading challenge it sounds like.
A (Larry): Yeah, plastic is a huge challenge. Others would say glass, but the big thing with glass is that you collect it properly and manage it properly. I would say overall with recyclables that we collect, treat them as a commodity, not a waste. You have to treat them very differently than you treat your trash, and if everybody does that, we’re headed in the right direction.
Q: Okay. So bringing it into school space, how can educators, parents and school leaders use your programs to teach students the importance of recycling? Are there in-school initiatives that PROP works on for the PA public schools?
A (Jennifer): I will start by answering that PROP is currently doing a school recycling study. We’ve sent a survey to all public schools in Pennsylvania. And through that survey, we are gathering information on what recycling looks like right now in each school. We know that there is going to be model programs, and we know that there will be schools that need some help. Basically by completing this survey, that will help us get a better idea of what schools need. In the end we’ll recognize the model programs and reach out with assistance to those that need it. Through that, our goal is to provide best practices to the districts and the decision-makers, give them recommendations on how to manage the recyclables and organics and share the successes of those schools. As part of this initiative in the classroom, we did conduct a poster and video contest for the kids. We’re looking forward to seeing what some of those admissions look like.
But more specific to your question, county recycling coordinators they have access to both great classroom training activities that they themselves can come into the school and do a hands-on activity, kind of give the teacher a break for an hour and let somebody else come in and do a class. There’s also curriculum available specific to recycling. As far as accessing that, the first thing to do would be to search for Pennsylvania county recycling coordinators and the DEP webpage, where all of those contact information is listed will come up. At the same time, if you need help reaching out to your coordinator or getting connected to the right people, the PROP office can help get you there as well.
Q: Great. Now you mentioned the poster contest. Let’s hear a little bit more about that. PROP worked with, I understand the PA Department of Environmental Protection earlier this year to sponsor a poster and a video contest for students. How did that go? How did that initiative go?
A (Shelly): We did have a poster and video contest for the students. The poster contest was to demonstrate the environmental benefits of recycling and the video contest was for them to demonstrate which items can be recycled and how. We hope that students understand the benefits that they can gain from recycling, such as the environmental benefits and the economic benefits. We also hope that they learned how to recycle items properly. We did get a pretty decent quantity of the poster contest entries. We got a few, I would say probably about anywhere between five and 10, of the video contest entries. We are in the process of getting those available for our panel of judges to look at and make the selections on who the winners are. We have not done that yet, but they will be posted once we select the winners and then the winners will be notified as well.
Q: That’s great. Larry, the DEP, did they get involved in joint partnerships like this, such as the poster and video contest to educate Pennsylvania’s youth? Is there any other kind of initiatives that are in that space?
A (Larry): We work with PROP and our partners, the county coordinators, throughout the year to provide education. We have regional DEP coordinators in 60 key regions of the state. There are three in Pittsburgh, two in the Philadelphia area, and one in the other regions of the commonwealth. Those DEP coordinators engage in recycling education activities through schools and organizations all the time.
We also are working with our partners at the Recycling Market Center in Middletown, which is a statewide nonprofit that is geared towards developing markets and ensuring that Pennsylvania recycled content goes into Pennsylvania products when possible. We’re looking to do some STEM education with them to make sure that the STEM students know about the careers available and opportunities that exist in the recycling and waste management fields. So that’s another partner who we work with.
I would say far and away, we’ve had a longstanding relationship with PROP for well in excess of 25 years. And through that partnership, we’re able to touch all the counties in one way or another.
Q: Great. So there’s a number of layers there. The career part kind of caught my attention. That’s interesting. How about PROP? Are there other PROP in-school initiatives or anything you want to call attention to?
A (Shelly): I wouldn’t say there’s any other in school initiatives that PROP does. However, PROP is the state recycling association where the county and municipal recycling professionals get their certification. So we just promote the education of our professionals so that they can go out and assist.
Q: What are some of the challenges that school leaders might face when trying to incorporate large-scale recycling programs in their schools? Are there any kind of challenges they should be looking at and looking at how to solve?
A (Larry): Yes. First and foremost, they need to look at the contractual arrangements to manage their waste and recycling. They cannot depend on the waste hauler to provide them instantly the solution they want. Many times the waste hauler is connected to the waste disposal facility, and their primary mission is to collect trash and do business.
One thing that schools need to think about is how many bins do you have outside your school. When are they getting full? And by further implementing my recycling program, how can I reduce the amount of material that goes in there and the number of times those need to be dumped? Those might seem overly simple, but many school administrators don’t have experience or don’t get into the nuts and bolts of negotiating those contracts. There’s savings to be had there, and there’s also creating an understanding of recycling and the economic environmental benefits associated with it.
To follow up on that, one of the challenges that large schools have, and even some small ones, are training of the facilities staff and making the change towards recycling more and how to properly manage that material. It’s not something you just start doing if you haven’t been doing it. We talked earlier about how to prepare it. Well, when you’re preparing it to be collected, you want to make sure you’re not cross-contaminating. For example, schools generate large amounts of cardboard. You don’t want to put the cardboard in with your other recyclables. You want to keep it separate. Cardboard has inherent value and a pretty stable value and can be managed locally.
The other thing that schools should do is look at their local businesses, their local recyclers, and see how they can be engaged and not just depend solely on the waste hauler, because in fact depending on where you’re located, how much you’re generating, some of the local recyclers will come and pick up your cardboard and pay you depending on how much you’re generating and when it’s picked up. But if you don’t get to that fundamental contracting, and understand what you have, i.e. don’t treat it as a waste, you could be out in the cold a little bit.
With that, I would say on top of all that is establishing realistic metrics for the success of your program. The success of your program shouldn’t be based on minimizing cost or a recycling rate. It should be based on how you better manage your materials, which if you do better manage it, will result in cost savings, the amount of material that you diverted from disposal, which is an environmental benefit that the school can take, and can calculate the greenhouse gas reductions and individual energy savings that they’ve accounted for. And to have an accounting system that tells them what they’ve collected with regards to the recycling program. I think those are some key takeaways I would give to school districts who are implementing a program or who want to improve their existing program.
Q: That’s great. Great guidance. Thank you. Where can listeners get more informed, find answers to their questions? Is there any particular websites you’d want to direct folks to?
A (Jennifer): There are a wealth of resources out there. First and foremost, your county coordinator or your municipal recycling coordinator. That should always be your first stop because they will know the resources in that exact location. In fact, to Larry’s point about working with the school districts, the county recycling coordinators can come out and do an assessment. That’s actually a free resource, so make sure to take advantage of that.
Listeners can find great resources on the Pennsylvania DEP website under recycling and waste reduction. The Pennsylvania Recycling Market Center has good information on markets and the economics of recycling. In fact, there are many webinars and actually virtual conferences that are readily available now that folks don’t have to pay for travel and airfare and hotel on top of that. There might be a registration fee, but it’s easily accessible. For example, the National Recycling Coalition would be a good place to go. Certainly the proprecycles.org. In fact, we have under our school recycling study menu, there is an on-demand webinar that gives an overview of a couple of points we’ve talked about here today.
Larry, I really like your mindset of treat recyclable material like a commodity, not waste. For me, I was like, “Oh, that’s a great way to think about things, because if you treat it like waste, you’re not going to do it right.” It is a commodity, so treat it like that.
Pennsylvania, and Larry Holley is the Division Chief of Waste Minimization and Planning for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.