Thursday, October 23, 2014

Durham’s 1982 Recycling Social Entrepreneur

I hate playing cards, in part because of the childhood essential tremor manifest in my hands.  Even if that wasn’t the case, I’d be lousy at it.  My facial expressions instantly give away what I’m thinking.

Recently I overheard a friend explain that when the surrounding county rolled expanded pilot curbside recycling out to nearly all of the 11,000 households outside of the City of Durham, not enough was budgeted for roll-out carts.

So a stop-gap was to identify which households didn’t immediately use theirs and then scoop them back up for redistribution elsewhere.

Not exactly results-based accountability but it reminded me that the history of Durham’s acclaimed city-wide curbside recycling dates back to a social entrepreneur in 1982.

Just as I retired he was recognized with several others for social innovation during Durham’s Annual Tribute Luncheon, but unfortunately not for that one.

Dave Kirkpatrick is a serial social entrepreneur who upon graduation here in 1982 from Duke University, locally founded the non-profit SunShares, an early pioneer in both recycling and solar power.

With training in both physics and history analysis, he also saw business model potential in grassroots sustainability, as we would call it today.

His social enterprise was one of the first handful in the nation to incubate the practice of scalable curbside pickup of recyclables, a first using subscriptions.

A year before I arrived in Durham, Kirkpatrick’s quiet intensity had spurred the same City Council members who had spearheaded a billboard ban as part of a broader effort to roll back corrosive blight to set their sights on reducing other types of litter and waste.

In 1988, SunShares teamed with the City to ramp up curbside pick-up of recyclable community wide.

Dave looks more like an economist than a missionary, but he has made his life’s work in enterprise a testament to his faith that waste, including the blessing of natural resources, is sacrilege.

In 1994, five years after I first met him, he moved on to other social enterprises including SJF Ventures, a series of funds for clean tech.  Three years later and a year after Dave was nationally recognized, Durham, where he still lives, made it unlawful to place certain items in trash.

I thought of Dave when a few years ago a local government coordinator let it slip that 80% of Durham’s nearly 70,000 households actively use curbside recycling.  According to some studies that is more than twice the rate nationwide.

Understanding a little about the real value in community benchmarks, I quickly asked, “How do we follow up with the 20% who don’t.”  The answer came back simply, “We don’t.” 

Nor did there seem to be any curiosity to do so even after it was suggested a personal visit might be useful to explain how it works and the benefit to them and their neighbors as well as to gather intelligence.

Just maybe they were newcomers or from areas without recycling or from countries that don’t yet value the practice?  It can’t just be assumed they are all dolts.

Many public servants, about 7-in-10 based on national and sector-wide surveys of workplace engagement, fail to embrace the importance of continuing public education or worse, or just don’t care enough to practice the philosophy of “each one, teach one.”

They may also fail to grasp that the 80/20 principle works both ways.

It could be that the 20% who are not recycling in Durham may also be generating a far disproportionate share of the waste still going into landfills, just as this is approximately the same percentage responsible for littering roadsides and businesses.

Regardless, telling themselves a story that those who don’t recycle; just don’t care, is a huge mistake.  Sure, its 14,000 households but a dozen or so interviews would help shape an effectively targeted direct communications strategy.

Non-profits and local governments deserve credit for scaling up recycling from those early beginnings making feasible private-sector involvement such as Sonoco, which began more than a hundred years ago as the Southern Novelty Company.

It made its name creating packaging for products, but starting in the 1920s very gradually moved into the recycling of that packaging.  Now it operates 40 materials recovery facilities around the country serving 125 cities and towns such as Durham.

Sonoco also consults now with more than 15,000 retailers on how to lessen their waste footprint.

But it was experimentation by non-profit social enterprises such as Dave’s that finally bridged the gap between recycling and what was needed to make it scalable for governments and businesses as a public-private venture.

We’ve come a long way since Dave’s pioneering 1982 startup at a time when even in cities, only between 7 and 9% of Americans were recycling.

But while passionate proactive public advocacy is seemingly in short supply, the job is far from finished with prolific waste stream ingredients such as plastic grocery bags and food scraps yet to be widely incorporated.

Once again, passionate social entrepreneurs may be needed to provide the bridge.

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