Here is the latest of Salt’sIdeas Essays: 15 pieces of expert thought leadership on the innovations and ideas that will change the world for the better. By working together, companies, consumers and governments can rejuvenate our broken recycling systems writes Tom Szaky, the Founder & CEO of Terracycle.
The global recycling infrastructure today is a mess. While countries like Austria and Germany boast recycling rates in excess of 60 per cent, other equally developed countries continue to lag far behind. The US, for instance, continues to suffer from the same stagnant recycling rates that have plagued it for years. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, from 2012 to 2013 the US’s recycling rate actually went down from 34.5 per cent to 34.3 per cent.
As if that weren’t enough, many industry analysts have recently criticised the economic viability of recycling, calling it a waste of money with no environmental benefit save for a select few materials like aluminum. Instead of recognising the important role recycling plays in sustainable development, many seem willing to write it off as a failure and waste of economic resources. This all ultimately begs the question: what do we have to do to support growth in the recycling industry, make recycling more viable, and most importantly, improve recycling rates across the world? The solution to this multifaceted question is dependent on three key groups, and together they can help make our global recycling infrastructure as effective and efficient as it needs to be in the twenty-first century.
We live in a disposability-minded global society, one that covets cheap convenience products that can be endlessly thrown away and replaced. It wasn’t even until the 1950s that this “Age of Disposability” really started coming into power, when highly refined raw materials like plastic started revolutionising global industry. Plastic made products cheaper, easier to mass produce, and perhaps most importantly, easier to throw away and replace over and over again.
Unfortunately, we are finally starting to see the repercussions of this recent industrial revolution. For context, consider the five trillion pieces of plastic, weighing in at approximately 269,000 tonnes, currently swirling throughout the Earth’s oceans. And because most plastics are durable and highly refined petroleum products, they will sit in the environment without degrading for centuries – perhaps longer.
Plastics are incredibly cheap to produce as well, so cheap in fact that there is often little economic incentive to recycle them. For example, if it’s cheaper to make a product with virgin materials than it is to collect, separate, recycle and reuse existing materials, recycling won’t even occur. Instead, we resign much of our plastic waste to linear disposal in landfills and incinerators, and the demand for virgin raw materials increases.
Mitigating the damage our disposable, linear mindset has wreaked across the world will be one of the biggest challenges of the twenty-first century. But consumers have an immense amount of power at their disposal to help.
Acting on the old credo “vote with your dollar” is perhaps the single greatest way individuals can fight against unsustainable disposable products. We need to empower individuals into developing more socially and environmentally conscious consumption habits so that companies with great sustainability track records are rewarded, while the laggards are pressured by consumers into changing course. Awareness campaigns and educational efforts can help accomplish this, and can bring more individuals into the “conscious consumer” movement. If more consumers valued the durable, sustainably-sourced, and reusable over the disposable, cheap and convenient, massive volumes of waste could be diverted from landfills every year. On the ground, improving commingled and single-stream recycling systems can also help consumers increase their collective recycling rates. These catch-all systems are incredibly popular today, as they contain all of a consumer’s potentially recyclable materials into a single bin or dumpster. The problem with these systems, however, is contamination – when consumers unintentionally throw non-recyclable materials into their bins. The more non-recyclable waste that must be separated from the stream, the higher processing costs become, further reducing the incentive to recycle.
Education and engagement will play key roles in getting commingled recycling systems back on track. It can come in even the simplest of forms, like standardised labels on recycling bins that explicitly identify what materials that bin accepts. If every municipality across a given country adopted a single recycling bin label system, individuals would know how to properly recycle regardless of where they are in the country. Equally important is to stress why proper recycling is critical – it keeps valuable materials in the production cycle, reduces landfill waste, can reduce carbon emissions, and reduces the demand for virgin materials that have to be extracted from the earth.
The ultimate goal is to help build a new population of conscious consumers that A) values durable products over disposable alternatives; B) realises the importance of proper recycling and the need to maintain our raw materials for multiple uses; and C) pressures their favourite brands and product manufacturers into becoming leading examples of sustainability.
Major brands, consumer product companies, and manufacturers have to be held accountable for their contributions to our linear economy as well. Until there are disincentives in place to move manufacturers away from disposable, typically non- recyclable products and packaging, the linear “extract, produce, consume, dispose” model of production and consumption will continue to reign supreme.
Thankfully for us, many consumer products companies are embracing sustainability across their entire platform. By integrating more sustainable practices across their respective supply chains, many companies are even discovering the business-side perks of “going green.” Reducing waste and increasing recycling efforts can increase supply chain security (allowing manufacturers to reuse materials that would otherwise be considered “waste”), increase brand equity, attract new consumers to the brand, and can even lower costs and increase manufacturing efficiencies.
We will get nowhere in our fight to considerably improve recovery rates and bolster the global recycling infrastructure without government action. To see just how effective policy can be in this context, one need only look at Germany’s fantastic recycling infrastructure today.
Throughout the 1990s, Germany passed waste-reduction policies and extended producer responsibility legislation meant to make manufacturers responsible for the waste generated by their products. For example, the 1991 Packaging Ordinance (VerpackV) made manufacturers responsible for their pre- and post-consumer packaging waste, forcing them to develop non-linear disposal solutions for the waste. This policy strategy effectively pressures companies into developing more sustainable and efficient packaging mediums, all without pushing potential costs to taxpayers.
The more comprehensive Closed Substance Cycle and Management Act then came in 1996. This policy requires manufacturers to adopt a variety of waste-reduction strategies across their respective supply chains: avoid the generation of waste altogether with better processing and design, recycle any waste that is generated, and finally, responsibly dispose of the waste that can’t be recycled. Instead of making individual consumers responsible for recycling, these policies push that responsibility up to the companies manufacturing consumer products in the first place.
Outside of Germany, there are many possible avenues for change. Packaging taxes, like those we have seen from nonprofit industry groups in Europe, can help motivate manufacturers into developing more sustainable packaging mediums. At the same time, incentivising the use of recycled materials through government subsidies can make virgin raw materials less attractive to manufacturers, further supporting the recycling industry. Making linear disposal options, like landfilling and incineration, less attractive may also be necessary moving forward. Landfill taxes – “pay as you go” systems that charge consumers for waste disposal based on weight – and a subsidised recycling industry can shift the economic barriers of recycling and make it more appealing to everyone.
Each of these three categories is massively important to the global recycling industry. No single strategy will get us back on track; we need informed and educated consumers on the ground, corporations that drive sustainability at every opportunity, and governments that are motivated to improve the recycling infrastructure through policy and legislation. If we can make this paradigm shift towards sustainable development a reality, the future of recycling might not look as grim as some would have you believe.
WAR ON WASTE
- Acting on the old credo “vote with your dollar” is the single greatest way individuals can fight against unsustainable disposable products.
- By reducing waste, companies can increase brand equity, attract new consumers, lower costs and increase manufacturing efficiencies.
- “Pay as you go” systems that charge consumers for waste disposal based on weight and a subsidised recycling industry could shift the economic barriers to a zero-waste culture.
About Tom Szaky
Tom Szaky is the CEO and founder of TerraCycle, a company that makes consumer products from waste. Today, TerraCycle is a highly-awarded international upcycling and recycling company that collects difficult-to-recycle packaging and products and repurposes the material into affordable, innovative products