Eco-Cycle: The green pioneer born in an old school bus

STARS OF SEWF2020: Ahead of next week's Social Enterprise World Forum, taking place online for the first time, we meet a few speakers you won't want to miss. This time Kate Bailey, policy and research director of Eco-cycle, one of the world’s oldest non-profit recycling organisations, tells us why recycling is about much more than dealing with waste – and the "tremendous opportunity" for social enterprises today.

In 1976, a graduate student started a temporary recycling drive to raise money for a local non-profit in Boulder, Colorado. A groundswell of community support for the project led to it becoming one of the first 20 kerbside recycling services in the USA. Unable to afford trucks to collect the materials, community members ripped the seats out of an old school bus, creating their own recycling truck; various community bodies, including boy scouts and church groups, organised neighbours to put their newspapers out on the kerbside for collection.

Eco-Cycle worker and bus

Little did they know what they were starting. Forty-four years later and this small-scale, grassroots initiative has evolved into one of the world’s oldest and largest non-profit recycling organisations, turning over $8m, processing nearly 55,000 tonnes of materials and employing 65 staff. Its mission and its impact though, extend far beyond recycling.


Reframing recycling

Kate Bailey - Eco-CycleKate Bailey (pictured) is the policy and research director of Eco-Cycle, which she joined back in 2003. “Our mission is to build zero waste communities,” she says. “Our goal is to innovate, implement and advocate. We are looking to build a model programme in our community, and then share what we learn to help other communities around the country and the world do the same.” 

Though still relatively small, Bailey describes the organisation as an “incubation hub” that's always looking out for the next opportunity. “Right now, we’re reframing why society needs to recycle. It’s not just about reducing waste. It’s about reducing climate impact and creating employment too.”

We’re reframing why society needs to recycle. It’s not just about reducing waste. It’s about reducing climate impact and creating employment too

These multiple goals are reflected in Eco-Cycle's three revenue-earning programmes. One is a major recycling and materials recovery facility, run in partnership with Boulder County, which processes, sorts and markets around 55,000 tonnes of kerbside recyclable material every year. Another is its small fleet of trucks, which pick up recycling, composting and hard-to-recycle materials from businesses and schools.

“Being a hands-on operator is really critical to Eco-Cycle’s role as an advocate because we can speak from a place of experience—we know the nuts and bolts challenges of making it work and we can show how it can be done,” explains Bailey. “For example, our fleet was the first to collect food waste from businesses in the county back in 2004, and now the City of Boulder mandates that all commercial businesses have compost collection.”

The third revenue-earning programme, CHaRM (Centre for Hard to Recycle Material), is a drop-off centre where residents and businesses can bring materials such as fridges, mattresses and electronics.

“Hard-to-recycle materials make up 15-20% of our waste stream and are a great opportunity to generate local jobs. We partner with two other social enterprises through the CHaRM that dismantle and recycle electronics and mattresses. Every community needs a CHaRM as a critical piece of zero waste infrastructure,” says Bailey.

Eco-Cycle - CHaRM tour

Above: A tour of Eco-Cycle's CHaRM (Centre for Hard to Recycle Material) drop-off centre, where local residents and businesses can bring fridges, mattresses and electronics – and fire extinguishers



Tremendous opportunity

The nonprofit also gives around 2,000 presentations at schools every year, as well as running outreach programmes with adults and advocating for change at the local and state government level, for example calling on legislators to ban unnecessary plastics. Because ultimately, as Bailey says, the goal is to stop using fossil fuels, not simply to do lots more recycling. “We are advocating for new business models that promote reuse and refill instead of single-use plastics. That’s the real win for the environment and a tremendous social enterprise opportunity.”

We are advocating for new business models that promote reuse and refill... That’s the real win for the environment and a tremendous social enterprise opportunity

With 44 years’ hands-on experience creating community infrastructure, policies and programmes to reduce waste and increase recycling, Eco-Cycle’s impact story is impressive. The organisation values its softer impacts, such as its success in engaging 54, 000 students and teachers in environmental education programmes, and its industry-wide efforts to tackle waste at breweries, as much as more easily quantified impacts, such as saving the region from 49,615 metric tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions annually.

Bailey will be speaking at two Social Enterprise World Forum events next week, ‘Climate change and community scale social enterprises’ and ‘Climate crisis: social enterprises tackling waste’. How is she feeling about the online gathering?

“It’s incredibly inspiring to be part of a larger movement focussing on social change, especially during this pandemic when so many are struggling. There’s never been a better time to ask, ‘How can we all make our own businesses and communities more resilient? How can we use the pandemic experience to shift course, prioritise social enterprises and deal with the climate crisis?’ This could be a turning point, and I am hopeful we can all capitalise on it.”


Eco-Cycle: Key figures 

  • Founded: 1976
  • Legal structure: Nonprofit – 501(c)(3)
  • Primary business market/audience: Citizens, schools and businesses within Boulder County; councillors and legislators locally and nationally
  • Business model: Provides recycling collection, processing and education services, often in partnership with local government; some foundation grants and donations 
  • Region: Primary operations in Boulder County, Colorado; state and national influence and policy engagement
  • Turnover: $8m
  • Key social impact metrics: In 2019, 93 million pounds of material recycled; 41,000 customer visits to CHaRM; 1,000+ eco-leaders engaged; 280 carbon farmers engaged to reduce carbon emissions


Pioneers Post is a media partner of the Social Enterprise World Forum, which takes place online 21-25 September. Check back soon for more speaker profiles and coverage.

Image credits: Eco-Cycle