Today, we have a lot of waste. The world produces over two billion tons of municipal solid waste every year, enough to fill more than 800,000 Olympic sized swimming pools. Without urgent action, The World Bank found global waste levels will increase 70 percent by 2050.

Considering you are reading an article in Conscious Connection (CC), you are likely one of those noble people who try to minimize their resource use and recycle everything appropriately. Kudos! But should you trust that everything you put in the recycling bin actually gets recycled? Sadly, no.

You should especially be dubious of plastic. Many kinds of plastic, even ones that have the overly trusted tri-arrows symbol, go to landfill because they are not economical to recycle. This is why only nine percent of all plastic ever produced has been recycled. In contrast, the recycling rate for aluminum beverage cans is 50 percent and the recycling rate for steel food cans is 71 percent.

Even if you only put acceptable items in your recycling receptacle, others may ruin your efforts. If your waste hauler collects the recycling of others that contains non-recyclables (i.e., contamination), the material recovery facility may send the load to landfill because it is not economical to sort. Contamination is a major issue. The average contamination rate in U.S. recycling loads is around 25 percent. Two of the worst offenders are plastic bags and diapers.

How do we fix our wasteful ways and ensure materials are being repurposed? Here are three things we need to do: (1) begin the transition to a circular economy; (2) enhance domestic processing infrastructure; and (3) use our purchasing power to create demand for more products that are circular and likely to be recycled in today’s system.

CIRCULAR ECONOMY EXPLAINED

The idea of a circular economy is incredibly exciting, but we are also far away from having an economy where waste minimization is paramount.

Imagine a world where designers consider if the materials used and the product’s construction allow for easy and economical processing into new products; companies sell items but also allow people to share or rent things; consumers know exactly how to return a product; and manufacturers innovate to keep re-using the same materials. This is the promise of the circular economy, a world where waste is designed out of our system.

Product design is not circular today. There is very little communication between recyclers and product designers. Companies are free to incorporate new materials and combine different kinds of materials, creating multi-layered products such as cartons that require separation of the materials prior to recycling and can have weak markets. The trick is to have innovation, safety, preservation and the other benefits of a package while making sure it goes beyond being technically “recyclable” to is recycled at scale in today’s system.

Materials you put in the recycling bin that do not get turned into new products (i.e., are landfilled or end up in the ocean) or that are turned into new products that are unlikely to be recycled at the end of their useful life (i.e., downcycling) are not part of the circular economy. Recycling that is part of a circular economy is where the materials can be recycled infinitely and the products that are made from the recyclables are likely to be recycled at the end of their useful life. The metal can is an ideal example of the circular economy. The aluminum in beverage cans and the steel in food cans can be recycled over and over again without any loss in quality. Plus, old cans are typically recycled back into new cans, which are likely to be recycled since cans have the leading recycling rate among food and beverage containers.

Note that the circular economy is way more than recycling. It is a fundamental shift in the way our economy operates and creates value. The business models of the circular economy include circular supplies, resource recovery, product life extension, product as a service and sharing platforms (see another CC article on sharing platforms here).

The steps to unlocking the circular economy are not easy. However, there are many examples of companies embracing circular principles, and 80 percent of U.S. executives reported having a strategic intent to implement a circular economy framework or already have one in place. Certain governments are leading the way as well. Finland produced the first national road map to a circular economy in 2016.

ENHANCE DOMESTIC PROCESSING INFRASTRUCTURE

Our so-called recyclables sometimes have nowhere to go. China used to be the world’s biggest consumer of scrap material but that all changed with its 2018 ban on mixed plastic and paper imports, and its restriction of other scrap. Developed countries tried to find new buyers; however, many of those countries like Malaysia and India have announced new import restrictions.

The result is a glut of material and depressed prices. Republic Services, North America’s second largest residential garbage and recyclables hauling company, recently reported the average price it received in the third quarter of 2019 for recovered commodities was $72 per ton, a 32 percent decrease year over year. Recyclables worth less has translated to cities and counties paying high prices for recycling when before they often got paid for the material. Certain high-value materials such as aluminum drive a lot of the revenue for recyclers. For example, a recent two year average found aluminum cans worth $1,317/ton and glass bottles worth –($20)/ton. Still, it is increasingly hard for the high-value materials to make up for the low value of other materials as the market for recyclables continues to decline.

A big part of the solution is to have more domestic processing infrastructure so that the material does not need to be shipped across the ocean, local jobs are created and there is a demand for the material that drives its price up.

Government has a role to play in spurring domestic processing infrastructure. Japan, the second biggest exporter of plastic outside the United States, recognizes this need. It is trying to stimulate domestic processing by subsidizing plastic recycling machinery purchases with billions of yen.

Business can help create the demand for material that can lead to investment in domestic processing. Companies that have made recycled content commitments foster demand certainty. To name a few that have taken the recycled content plunge, Unilever has committed to 50 percent recycled content by 2020 (yes, that is this year), Coca-Cola is targeting 50 percent recycled content by 2030 as part of its World Without Waste initiative and Walmart has pledged to reach 20 percent recycled content by 2025 for its private label brands.

CONSUMER POWER IN THE CIRCULAR ECONOMY

You, dear reader, can be a consumer advocate and play an important role. Companies are more likely to design for the circular economy and make recycled content commitments if you demand and buy products that are circular in nature.

It is important to consider how a material was made and if it will actually be recycled. A product being “recyclable” is not enough. For example, consider the aluminum beverage can, which is a textbook example of the circular economy. Many do not realize that the average recycled content of a beverage can in the United States is 73 percent. Also, because it is so valuable, easy to sort and readily recyclable, all recycling programs gladly accept aluminum beverage cans. The icing on the cake is that aluminum can be recycled infinitely without any loss in quality. Similarly, the steel in steel food cans is easy to sort, readily recyclable and can be recycled infinitely. As a conscientious consumer, you can purchase more products like the can that the current recycling system is able to process at scale and more products with material like aluminum and steel that can be recycled over and over again.

Also, show your support for circular actions by telling companies you agree with their commitments or by participating in their circular models. You could rent gear through REI’s and Patagonia’s rental gear programs that are set to be broadened. You could buy shirts from For Days that make it easy to return and recycle the shirts. You could lease furniture from Ikea. You could repair your phone instead of being the two-thirds of consumers that said they would not repair a damaged phone if it still worked.

You can be part of the circular transition and help unlock this economic opportunity of $4.5 trillion by 2030 if we use our resources fully with circular models. The first step is to consider what you buy and how it will flow through today’s recycling system. You may not like the answers to what is currently happening with your stuff. However, you will be filled with hope when you see the many circular alternatives such as cans and sharing models and how you are contributing toward the dream of a world where waste is designed out.

Circular Economy Recycling

About The Author

Scott Breen

Scott Breen is the VP, Sustainability at the Can Manufacturers Institute. His responsibilities include promoting cans as sustainable/circular packages, making sure federal and state policy support an efficient recycling system and recognize the can’s sustainability advantages. Outside of work, Scott is the Creator and Co-Host of the podcast Sustainability Defined, which reaches thousands of listeners as it defines sustainability one concept (and one bad joke) at a time.

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