“In the end, the term 'circularity' may just be one way to make us aware that we need a more encompassing, integrated and restorative sustainability path that includes people as much as technology and nature.”
― Michiel Schwarz, A Sustainist Lexicon
We all know recycling is critical, but as we’ve discussed in past blog posts, the recycling process can be extremely complicated.
Plastic production, especially for plastic packaging (the biggest plastic pollution offender) is HIGHLY CUSTOMIZED.
There are thousands of different options for plastic packaging as well as dozens of different chemicals and manufacturing processes. In many cases, different customized plastics are simply not interchangeable, and cannot be recycled together.
Additionally, since many plastic packaging is made for food and/or drinks, packaging can be easily soiled with grease, oil, food remnants, sugar, powders, waste etc.
If a very small percentage of recycled plastics are soiled, the entire batch of plastics can be turned away from recycling processing and instead will go to landfill.
And although all plastic packaging has “resin” codes at the bottom of each plastic container as a “guide” to help process and sort plastics, it’s unfortunately more complicated than that too – since the same number resin code does not guarantee recyclability!
Despite limitations on recycling plastic, there is more awareness of the plastic pollution crisis across the world and recycling rates are at an all-time high in most countries, especially in the developed world.
In The European Union, they have actually gotten a lot better with recycling plastic in the last ten years and plastic packaging recycling has increased by 75%.
Plastics Europe explains, “From 2006 to 2016, the volume of plastic packaging waste collected for recycling increased by 74%, energy recovery increased 71% and landfill decrease by 53%. (Source: Conversio Market & Strategy GmbH).
Sadly, the United States is very far behind.
According the EPA, in 2015, our overall recycling rate of plastic packaging is only about 14.6%!
This is based on 2,150 thousand U.S. tons being recycled out of a total of 14,860 thousand U.S. tons of plastic packaging/container waste generated.
That being said, we are still at relatively all-time highs and the trends are all moving in the right direction when looked at over the past 25 years.
But here’s the thing, we are approaching diminishing returns on recycling rates, even with increased government, NGO, business, and consumer awareness.
Recently in the U.S. for example, recycling rates of PET plastic bottles have actually decreased slightly.
In general PET plastic bottles have amongst the highest recycling rates because of the sheer volume present as well as the established recycling infrastructure in the developed world (and generally much more uniformity and less soiled plastics).
According to Recycling Today, and The National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR), “The 2016 U.S. recycling rate for polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles was 28.4 percent, which reflects a 2.4 percent decrease in total collection volumes and an increase of more than 3 percent in the total volume of PET bottles available for recycling in the U.S.
Check out an awesome report about US recycling rates on PET bottles from NAPCOR and The Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR) HERE!
Of course, this may be something that has been exacerbated by a less environmentally friendly administration and Congress, but we’ve see similar trends in China and other countries also. In 2013, China’s plastic rate fell to 22% overall, which was a HUGE decrease.
Jason Wang, general secretary of China Scrap Plastics Association (CSPA) explains, “Wang says imports of plastic scrap into China in 2013 dropped just as dramatically as plastic scrap consumption. In 2013, China imported 7.89 million metric tons of plastic scrap compared to nearly 8.88 million metric tons the year before—an 11.2 percent drop.”
This occurred because China was accepting so much plastic from all over the world, that it began to incur so many costs of cleaning, sorting, and processing all the plastic that it became too difficult to continue at the same rate.
Similarly, China recognized that so much plastic waste would create an avalanche of plastic pollution its own backyard of waste that is unfit for recycling – not to mention it would also increase its carbon footprint in the process, since large amounts of unfit plastic waste would also likely be incinerated.
So therein lies the heart of the problem, plastic pollution can only be recycled to a point, and often the importer of plastic waste (in this case, China) also takes the risk in their home country of adding both plastic pollution in landfills, plastic leakage in oceans, and added CO2 from incineration.
The bottom line with recycling plastic – its extremely important and certainly a much better option than landfills or incineration, but still not an optimal solution.
Overall, the percentage of plastics that actually get recycled is still too low, and even if it got to 40-50% total, we are still not even making a dent in the total amount of cumulative plastic outstanding.
It reminds me, to some extent, of the problem of building new prison, low income housing complex, or homeless shelter.
Just like importing plastic to recycle, everyone recognizes the importance and severity of these issues, but no one wants it in “their backyard.”
Well maybe, we should focus on creating a society that produces far less criminals, less homeless, and less impoverished people in the first place.
Similarly, when it comes to plastic pollution, attacking this crucial issue at its source is the optimal solution.
We’ve advocated for a circular economy for plastics, first theorized by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, as a means to eliminate plastic pollution at its source.
Creating a circular economy requires having a “plan” for every piece of plastic produced, whether that be recycling or reuse. And the goal of course is a zero waste system.
We are happy to announce that some major brands are finally stepping up to the plate and have subscribed to a global platform that could very well change the world.
Welcome to Loop!
They are a start up that is launching test pilots this year with a coalition of huge brands you already know and love – and you’re about to love them a whole lot more now.
For the first time, this isn’t some theoretical concept being hashed out in the U.N. or Brussels with some esoteric think tank or foundation.
These are real and global companies that have committed to the pilot program. Gillete, Proctor & Gamble, Unliver, PepsiCo., Nestle etc. with name brands like Haagen Daz, Crest toothpaste, Tide detergent etc.
How does it work?
Think of your favorite black and white 1950’s sitcom – remember that neighborhood milk man?
Everything basically works like that, but with much more complicated design, logistics and technology.
Picture your house now with three bins – landfill, recycle, and reuse.
With true infrastructure of a network of committed brands, many of the single use plastic packaging/containers can now instead comprise of reusable, plastic-free containers.
Often made with stainless steel or aluminum, after the product is used it can simply be tossed in the reuse bin. When the reuse bin is full, UPS (a logistics partner of Loop) will pick it up for free.
Every package in the system is designed for at least 100 uses, and the product can actually perform better than before, because the packaging is being optimized for performance and not just convenience or affordability.
Tom Szaky, CEO and cofounder of TerraCycle (a company that is partnered with the project), explains,
“Shifting the ownership of a package from a consumer back to a brand creates new opportunities. “It shifts from being a cost to the manufacturer to being an asset,” he says.
Instead of aiming to make the cheapest packaging possible, packaging can be designed to look better on shelves. It can also perform better; the Haagen-Dazs ice cream tub, for example, can keep ice cream frozen for multiple hours.”
The reason we like this so much?
It doesn’t require consumers to change their behavior much at all. For most middle and wealthy classes of the developed world, most families already recycle to one degree of another. Now we are just adding a third “reuse” bin, with a minor deposit per container.
Through FastCompany, Szaky states that creating an infrastructure with minimal consumer change is optimal, “For consumers, the process is designed to be as seamless as possible.
The goal isn’t as much to get you to change, it’s instead to create systems that don’t make you change–but have you then solve the issue in the process,”
Szaky says. “Creating consumer change is phenomenally difficult. So the first question we asked in developing the model was why did disposability win? Why did it take over? I think it did because disposability is convenient and affordable.”
One of the biggest problems with the concept behind “reduce” is that it implies a decrease in consumption, a decrease in company revenues/profits, and eventually that translates to worker’s being laid off too.
Job losses could occur on the factory floor, in middle management, accounting/marketing depts. etc. The job losses might be overseas, domestic, or a combination but the reduction of consumption usually leads to conglomerates simply reducing expenses to maximize quarterly profitability
(which in the case of virtually every major global plastic packaging/container product, we are generally talking major corporations).
Everyone wants to “reduce” until its THEIR JOB or THEIR MONEY on the line.
If you don’t believe me, ask the yellow vests protest movement in France – they have been rioting and protesting throughout France for over SIX MONTHS due to increased gas taxes.
And according to NBC News, “By raising the cost of diesel, the French government hopes to convince more people to buy less-polluting vehicles.”
Everyone wants a cleaner environment, less C02, and less litter - but no one wants to pay more in taxes, either.
We don’t have to reduce consumption if we consume more intelligently and develop a global infrastructure and strategic partnerships.
Reusable packaging/containers option, with recycling as a secondary option is the BEST option we have in a capitalist economy to create a zero waste system because it creates better product design and cost effectiveness for businesses, allows consumers to minimally change behavior, and this also reduces the environmental cleanup costs and health concerns for nations as a whole.
We salute Loop and all of the great companies and brands that committed their affiliation to this new platform.