Why Creating More Recyclable Packaging Isn’t the Solution

By Gina Wu Lee.

Since the start of the year, many companies including Unilever, Pepsi, and Walmart have declared commitments to using all recyclable product packaging by 2025. At first glance, this seems wonderful and I’ve been happily sharing these types of press releases on LinkedIn myself. But taking a step back, these announcements run the risk of oversimplifying the issue of plastic packaging in our waste stream. While it’s a positive development that these brands are thinking about the impact of their packaging, creating “sustainable” packaging doesn’t address the underlying systematic issues of packaging and other single use plastic. Here are a few reasons.

1. Show me the Money! There must be economic incentives to recycle, compost, reuse. As Tom Skzaky, the CEO of TerraCycle brought up in his recent interview with Waste Dive,

“One of the sort of biggest jokes that [is] circulating in my mind is you’re getting lots of major organizations out there, big consumer product companies, today committing to make all of their packaging recyclable by say 2020. But if you really read between the lines… it’s that the waste will be technically recyclable, as in a laboratory it could be recycled. And the joke to me is it already is…I mean everything can be technically recycled. That’s not the issue. The issue is having to do with economics. Can it be profitably recycled? And this is the big disconnect I think that manufacturers have with the waste management industry.”

So what he is saying is that our current waste packaging system isn’t broken because of the lack of development in the recyclability of packaging, it’s more that our economic model (at least in the U.S. and much of the developing world), doesn’t properly reward anyone for actually doing the recycling. Even if all of our waste was recyclable, we need the systems in place to create a demand for recyclable material and penalties for letting the material enter the waste stream instead of being reutilized.

For example, since 1991 Germany has had regulation in place making consumer products companies responsible for the disposal of consumer packaging, what is known as Extended Producer Responsibility. Currently, Germany has an over 40% plastic packaging recycling rate and are aiming for an over 60% rate by 2022. In the U.S., we have an abysmal 13% plastic packaging recycling rate!

Here is where the U.S. falls in comparison to other countries.

Eurostat_EPA

The difference in the German system and the US system is thus:

“The concept in which private industries are responsible for eliminating waste — and for covering the costs — is described as the ‘polluter pays’ principle. In other words, those who create the waste are responsible for cleaning up the mess. The U.S. has a ‘consumer pays’ policy, in which waste management is funded by taxpaying citizens.” —Marie Look, writer of “Trash Planet: Germany

So would these same companies that are part of the #NewPlasticsEconomy be supportive of a similar polluters pay (Extended Producer Responsibility) model to address the economic incentive issues in the U.S.? Or would this be something they would lobby against? With or without new developments in the material composition of materials, we are going to need to ensure that the corporations who are producing waste are incentivized to return it back into the resource stream.

As an aside, if the focus is on the utilization of more recycled packaging as some companies such as Evian are promising to do, this would create a positive market impact since demand would increase.

2. Assess our current infrastructure

So let’s say we do have the economic incentives in place. We would then need to ensure that we have the ability to properly recycle it at scale especially if we are developing new types of materials that our current recycling systems aren’t designed for.

A good example of this is the debate over plastic products that label themselves as biodegradable. Some folks argue that these products are highly misleading as we read the label and think that they can be easily degraded in any natural environment. (IE. I can throw this in my backyard! vs. I need a huge industrial scale composter with a stable temperature of 155 F!)

Given that many cities do not have industrial composters, some argue these biodegradable products do MORE harm than traditional plastics because they contaminate the pure plastic recycling waste stream, leading to increased costs for plastics recycling and also use natural resources to produce which leads to more global warming! I have not done enough research on the topic to make a judgement either way but the point is that just because we can innovate on the materials side, ensuring we have the infrastructure (which is usually funded at least in some part by our taxes) to collect it, process it and re-manufacture it is another issue.

3. Consumer Education is KEY

This point is pretty self-explanatory and requires a different approach according to every region’s social norms and understanding of recycling. In the United States, we are apparently great at “Wishful Recycling” which is leading to issues for our entire recycling industry as a whole. But since we, as consumers, are the last point of contact for over 50% of packaging waste, ensuring that we understand how and where to put it is integral to making sure our plastic packaging doesn’t end up where it shouldn’t! So having corporations sponsor more consumer education campaigns with non-profits such as the Recycling Partnership, is also integral to creating a truly sustainable plastic packaging system.

Conclusion

The challenge of how to sustainably manage plastic packaging waste is multi-faceted and there many elements to tackle beyond just altering the composition of plastic!

This post didn’t mention items such as #circulardesign #sourcereduction #reuse and #lessconsumption that are also integral! Would love to hear your thoughts on what you think are the priorities to tackle. Let’s make plastic packaging pollution and degradation an issue of the past.

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