On the Environment: What Can We Learn from a Local Retailer Recycling Scorecard?

Like many in our community, I became more aware of the impact of waste to our local and global environments through many recent national news programs and publications. Many of us have vowed to literally clean up our acts and take more civic responsibility to “reduce, reuse and recycle.” However, I consistently observe significant amounts of recyclable materials appearing in retail trash receptacles. This contributes significantly to our low US recycling rate of about 35%. 

I thought, if we can find the means to answer the following questions, we may find a path toward meaningful progress:

  • What is happening and by how much?
  • How can we collectively make a real and sustained difference?
  • How can we tell if we have made a difference?

To begin answering these questions and quantify the level of current exposure, I conducted my own survey of many local retail establishments, prioritizing establishments that consumers most often visit (see Table 1).  My approach was to enter the business, attempt to find a recycling receptacle, or if not found, ask an employee if they have a recycling bin for customer use. I also looked behind each establishment to see if there were bins for recycling pickup.  

The scope of my personal survey focused on the following criteria:

10 material categories: whether sold or dispensed, or with accessible recycle receptacles:  Cardboard, Paper, Aluminum, Plastic #1s/#2s, #3s/#4s/#7s, #5s, #6s/No #s, Glass, Drink Cartons (e.g., milk), and Plastic Bags.

One observation:  whether recyclable materials were visible in the retailer’s trash bins.

For simplicity, I scored +1 for each material recycled and -1 for each material sold or dispersed, and if recyclables were visible in the trash.  Thus, a total of zero (break-even) or positive (recovering more than dispensed) is the ideal target score.

For ease of interpretation, I applied an A, B or C rating just as applied to sanitary inspection certificates commonly seen in restaurants.  The result is the following retailer recycle scorecard summary, reflecting a survey of 23 Hopewell Valley retail establishments.

Table 1:  Sample Scorecard Survey of 23 Establishments in Hopewell Township, Hopewell Borough & Pennington Borough

Type of Retail Establishment# of RetailersA RatingB RatingC Rating
To-Go Food & Beverage12381
Grocery & Drug4  4
Gas & Convenience4  4
Convenience1  1
Beverage Only1 1 
Gas Only1 1 
Grand Total2331010

Rating Legend:  A (Score of 0+); B (Score of -1 to -3); C (Score of -4 or Below).

So how could such a rating method help?  A recycle scorecard (which could evolve into a broader sustainability scorecard) offers a practical means of enabling retail establishments, consumers, municipalities and community groups to make, measure and report a difference.   

Many ideas become apparent when considering this kind of approach.

  • Simply providing recycling receptacles near entry/exits would immediately improve ratings. 
  • Expanding the materials acceptable for recycling and or eliminating non-recyclable or hard-to-recycle materials would further elevate ratings. 
  • Expanding the rating system to survey Bring-Your-Own-Container or recycle directional/encouragement signage would further motivate retailers and consumers to be more recycling- conscious. 
  • Consumers could help encourage such efforts by simply asking if an establishment will provide recycling receptacles for the materials they sell or disperse.
  • Such a rating system could even form the basis of a crowd-sourced mobile review app similar to Yelp.
  • Retailers and municipalities could work with retail property companies to provide or make recycling receptacles more conveniently available, or provide and place recycle signage.
  • Municipalities could work with retailers to overcome several impediments to more effective recycling or reduction of non-recyclable waste.
  • Having regularly published scorecard results could help us all see the impacts of our efforts in a more direct and meaningful way.

I hope this can inspire us to seek out and promote ways we all can make an impact on our local and global environment.  I have presented this to our Hopewell Township Environmental Commission with a very positive reception.

I would welcome any and all feedback to improve upon this concept. This will be a long journey, but the journey will be much easier if we can inspire each other to stay the course.

Contributed by Paul Kinney. Kinney is a Hopewell Township resident with a background in software technology services. He also is a member of the Hopewell Green Team and an alternate member of the Hopewell Township Environmental Commission. The opinions represented here are his personal views and do not imply any endorsement by these organizations.

Edited on 12/29/19 to remove duplicates in bullet list

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