The people who think about recycling think about it a lot.
Collecting materials is the easy part; figuring out how to get it recycled is a constant pursuit as the market for the materials shift.
The rest of us? We're not as wasteful a society as we used to be. If a recycling option is convenient, a good number of people will make the more productive and sustainable choice. But add a point or two of friction to make recycling even a little bit harder and it's easy to see the level of commitment fall.
For most of us in Northwest Arkansas, recycling consists of some sort of curbside pickup of a few items, whether it's plastics or some sort of fiber, such as paper or cardboard. Some glass recycling goes on. There's even some recycling of expanded polystyrene (often referred to by the brand name Styrofoam) in Rogers.
Go deeper and the folks involved in recycling start making circular statements -- no in the vein of an logic, but in terms of an economic system.
As simple and familiar as recycling sounds -- the notion to find a new use for something that would otherwise be wasted is practically old school -- doing it on a grand scale gets complicated quickly. But advocates say it's vital that Northwest Arkansas get busier building a "circular economy" that makes the most of the products already here by finding new ways to use them again, and again, and again.
Think of it like the energy we all consume: A failure to create circular systems is like relying on coal alone to power our homes and devices. But what if our so-called waste streams become more like wind or solar power, continually creating "new" resources put to use in creative ways?
A circular economy essentially applies the common sense our grandparents used to live by: In it, the value of products and resources are maintained for as long as possible. "Waste not, want not," to recycle a phrase popular in the 1800s when replacing an item wasn't quite so simple as a quick trip to Walmart or Target.
For too long, most American communities have gone the "linear" route, focused on systems that assume consumption is simply a three-step process -- acquire, use and discard -- and that such an approach is just the way of life. Despite what communities and regions did to themselves in the '70s and '80s and before, consumption based on landfilling waste is horrible for the environment and promotes wasteful attitudes that have no long-term benefits and, indeed, create long-term headaches.
The discussion recently stirred by the private, nonprofit Northwest Arkansas Council centers on whether this region -- primarily Benton, Washington and Madison counties -- can tap its technological and entrepreneurial capacities to amp up existing recycling programs into a true circular economy that takes discarded materials and turns them into new products, preferably all within a reasonable proximity. No more of this shipping recyclables to China (which appears not to want it anymore anyway). Then there's the worthwhile idea that the United States ought to resolve the problems it creates itself.
The Northwest Arkansas Council, funded by the Walmart Foundation, hired a group called The Sustainability Consortium to evaluate our region's recycling efforts and make recommendations about how to improve what is lovingly called the "circular economy."
It's not a report everyone in Northwest Arkansas is likely to read, although it's really a worthwhile read for anyone wanting to understand the state of recycling in the region. See "Creating Circular Economics in Northwest Arkansas at https://nwacouncil.org/research-reports-2/.
The report suggests there are a lot of programs and interested parties already involved in recycling already. That's a strength that can be built upon. It can also be a challenge. Every time discussions turn to regional solutions in Northwest Arkansas, the fact that there are 35 cities, two solid waste districts and hundreds of private businesses involved also means there are turfs to be defended.
The big barrier to improving Northwest Arkansas' circular economy won't be a lack of knowledge and a lack of resources or funding, at least compared to a lot of the rest of the state. No, what stands between the region and a stronger approach is improved cooperation among the many separate entities involved in the work, the business community and, ultimately the consumers.
The report wisely recognizes a good track record of regional efforts such as development of Northwest Arkansas National Airport, the Benton-Washington Regional Public Water Authority, and the Razorback Greenway trail system. At least for some of those regional successes, it's perhaps easy today to forget how challenging the job was to bring those projects to fruition. They were decades in the making.
But nobody suggests this effort will be a quick fix. The report recommended the Northwest Arkansas Council hire a regional program manager who will more or less become the expert on all the components for a circular economy in the three-county area. Reducing points of friction as well as developing circular economy entrepreneurs who can create new business ventures off recyclables generated here and perhaps slightly beyond the region could put Northwest Arkansas in charge of its destiny.
"We have to find a new balance between prosperity and environmental preservation, but we have a long way to go, as currently only 8.6 percent of economic activity around the globe is circular," said Olga Algayerova, speaking earlier this year to a session of the U.S. Economic Commission for Europe. She's the commission's executive director.
So, yes, it's a global issue, but the solution won't be. Local support for regional solutions will be critical, and that's likely to happen when political leaders recognize it's what the public wants and what the region needs.
"Political will, investment, and regional coordination across municipal, corporate, and university stakeholders combined with some imagination is all that is necessary," The Sustainability Consortium's report said.
See, that's all.
What’s the point?
Northwest Arkansas’ future will need a strengthened recycling effort.