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ADA and Its Impact on Recycling

Celebrating 25 Years of ADA

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you may have noticed that sometimes I don’t see things quite like other people in my field (if you are a longtime colleague of mine, you have just finished thinking “that’s an understatement” after reading the preceding sentence). One area where I often see things a little differently regards recycling regulations.

I don’t put as much stock in mandatory recycling-rate regulations as some of my peers. While they did a great job of raising awareness about recycling, I don’t think those sorts of regulations did anything to overcome the logistical barriers that have limited recycling’s success. In fact, I think you can make the argument that some of those grand recycling regulations have impacted the way we count recycling (and not always in a good way) more than they have resulted in actual increases to the amount of materials recycled into new products.

What I do think has been the single most important piece of legislation to positively impact recycling is the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), which turns 25 years old this year. Without the architectural changes mandated by ADA it would be a lot less feasible in many buildings to collect items for recycling. The elevator access and ramps that make buildings wheelchair accessible make those same areas accessible to recycling collection crews utilizing rolling collection carts.

Keep in mind the dynamics of solid waste twenty five years ago when ADA came into effect. Excluding industrial waste, solid waste (including recycling) was about half from commercial and institutional sources and about half from residential sources. That’s a lot of recyclables trapped on the upper floors of office buildings, multifamily apartment buildings, colleges, and other multi-story buildings. And before ADA-driven renovations, those upper floors often didn’t have elevator access. It’s a lot trickier to get recyclables downstairs without elevators. If you’ve never done so, fill a 90 gallon collection cart full of 150-200 lbs of paper. Then try to carry it or bump it down 4 flights of stairs (if your health and safety folks will even let you try) to the first floor loading dock. As a contrast, try using the elevator to get that cart-full of paper downstairs. I have done both and I will tell you without hesitation that the elevator is a much more viable long-term option.

But you’re thinking: “We don’t need carts upstairs. Centralized collection is all the rage and we can make building occupants carry their stuff downstairs in smaller bins.” There is some validity to that thinking. Small bins are easier to carry than large bins. And centralized collection does have advantages in some types of building. But where those centralized bins are located matters, often considerably, to the success of a centralized collection program. If the central bin is in on an occupant’s floor, near their office or in their suite, I have found that occupants are much more likely to participate than if that central bin is too far away or on another floor. And if occupants do have to go downstairs to access a bin, they are more likely to do so if there is an elevator instead of having to carry the bin downstairs. So regardless of whether you have centralized or individualized collection, I would argue that your program in a multi-story building has been positively affected by ADA.

Also, compare ADA to other changes in recycling over the years. For example, single stream recycling is often credited with increasing the amount of stuff collected for recycling. But when you listen to the benefits of single stream recycling, take a closer listen. Many of those benefits come less from the commingling of recycling streams and more from the corresponding use of automated or semi-automated collection carts. Those carts can be dumped hydraulically into the collection truck, improving efficiency and allowing your crews to get home safely. ADA allowed for the use of those carts and the acquisition of those benefits in commercial and institutional buildings decades earlier (regardless of whether someone collected their recyclables in one stream or several streams). Yet ADA gets little of the recognition that single stream gets, which I think is a real shame.

Recycling is but a footnote among all the benefits that the Americans with Disabilities Act has provided. But in my opinion, ADA has been a tremendous and too often-unheralded boon to the success of recycling. On its historic anniversary, ask yourself, where would your recycling program be without the ADA enabling it to succeed?

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Roger Guzowski

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