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Two things that recycling is not: The Solution and the Enemy
Collecting plastics before they make their way into the ocean is key, we're all in this together.

Two things that recycling is not: The Solution and the Enemy

With the heightened awareness around plastic pollution and the rising willingness of consumers to “do something about it” comes the much-needed attention to recycling. This attention brings with it supporters and naysayers. The research, discovery, site visits and interviews from the last 12 months increasingly signal a neutrality about recycling. Not neutral as in – we should or shouldn’t do it, we so definitely should be recycling more, but neutral as in the problem or solution spectrum. Recycling is more like the bridge between the two – the better it flows the less the backup.
Let’s first state some obvious facts. Recycling as it is being practiced and defined today in our modern societies is not working. Buying a plastic product just with the “hopes” to recycle later isn’t working. Current recycling isn’t really even recycling, it’s mostly down-cycling. In the majority of the world, recycling is defined as collecting a type of plastic products and shipping them overseas to China. Which, as you know, has banned taking recyclables from the west this year. So the promise of recycling – most of the time is just a promise that doesn’t go any further.
Current recycling isn’t proper recycling. It’s making it somebody else’s problem
There are major factors at play when it comes to recycling woes. A few can be mentioned as – the capability to recycle any given plastic in any given location, the capacity of whatever capability is available, the recyclability of a given plastic material, the participation of the local community (business, municipal buildings, schools, individuals, organizations, etc.), and last, but definitely not least the contamination of the collected material.
Recycling is not the solution to plastic pollution
It’s worth emphasizing that recycling is not the solution to all the plastic pollution in our world. Recycling alone isn’t going to clean up the oceans nor even stop the amount of plastics entering the oceans daily.  However, plastics ARE part of our society and economics. They provide much value in our lives. They make possible to get medical supplies, food and clean water to remote areas. In this sense, plastic’s durability, efficiency, low cost, and flexibility is difficult, if not currently impossible, to replace. Not to mention, millions of people are employed in the plastics industry – whether production, manufacturing, collecting or recycling – the material is a major contributor to the world economics. Though this material can be reduced in production – it is very unlikely and probably harmful for it to vanish.
Granted – the recycling practices and programs in the world have not worked for the last 50 years. Hence we have this tremendous amount of plastics in our environment all the way downstream to our ocean. However, to use this rationale that it hasn’t worked so far in this capitalistic approach and make a case to stop it completely – would be misguided. The future isn’t without recycling, it is with more though more proper recycling. The process is end to end.
The future is with more, and more, proper recycling.
No doubt – the wasteful consumption habits of the west, and now even the east, calls for transformation. Most people can drink their drinks without a straw, morning coffees can be enjoyed without a plastic cup and lid, bananas can be sold in just their own natural peel – as opposed to plastic packaging, bags can be made of cotton to be used over and over again until they naturally begin disintegrating, restaurants can offer drinks in washable, reusable mugs and cups, etc. The point is clear: our wasteful habits need to be addressed.
Wasteful societal habits can and should be transformed.
At the same time, bans and levies of all sorts are having an impact. Single-use plastics should be banned as much as possible. The less we use them, the less they get into the environment. The fewer companies and organizations are producing and providing single-use plastics the less there will be to bleed into the ocean. And this is just an amazing goal.
Though the statistics that are available show that the majority of plastics that are being used in the world are not being used for single-use plastics. Packaging is the first place. Nearly 40% of the 330million metric tons of plastics produced last year was used to create packaging.
40% of plastics produced in 2017 were used in packaging.
One problem with recycling is that it doesn’t target packaging materials. This isn’t just because recyclers don’t want to recycle them. There are multiple factors. In the case of packaging, quality of the plastic in the packaging to begin with AND the contamination in collecting packaging materials are two big ones.
Plastic packaging is not recyclable in current recycling processes.
Sometimes it just makes sense to use an alternative material or avoid the product completely. For instance, in packaging, the purpose of packaging a product should be considered prior to wrapping it in plastic. Most packaging usually only needs to last about a year. After a year even the product that is contained in the package meets its expiration. Meaning instead of using durable, indestructible plastic – an alternative material can possibly be used. Perhaps made of natural starches, or sugar cane, or mushrooms, avocado skins etc. Alternatives do exist. If the product doesn’t expire after a year, then the product they are meant to protect, bond or carry is already made of plastic or a durable material and might not require much packaging. In this case, avoiding an extra layer of plastic is possible. Remember the days where we could buy just a single pen or pencil that we chose out of a glass container rather than picking out packages of 5-48 sets in plastic packaging? And the idea of using the indestructible plastic clasps to clasp toys into their boxes, that came way later. We can do without these.
There are alternatives to packaging with plastic
We can transform the way that the world – media, conglomerates, multi-nationals, marketing execs etc – see packaging – from a branding material to a purposeful necessity. Imagine if plastic packaging was only seen on products that would otherwise absolutely not be transportable or usable, and the packaging that was used was completely easily recyclable. Some medical products come to mind. Why not wrap some toys in a paper, or with easy to recycle or biodegradable materials? Like this example with Carlsberg beer using glue in place of their usual plastic six-pack rings.
See packaging as a necessity rather than branding material.
In manufacturing, prior to making a product in plastic – alternatives can be considered and used. Certain products might not require to be made from an indestructible material. A plastic bag is only used for an average of 11 minutes prior to being thrown out, then lasts in the environment for decades. A fork or spoon in a fast food restaurant is only used for a few minutes prior to being sent into landfill. So instead of indestructible plastic – we can all opt for forks and spoons made from biodegradable materials.
Single-use products are moving away from indestructible plastic.
Another meaningful transformation that can be considered in manufacturing might be only designing and creating products that can be recycled in readily available facilities. This isn’t necessarily just for plastic but also goes for paper, wood and other resources. This would mean there would be a standardization of materials to help with the processes down the road. There will always be toys, industrial, medical and other products that contain plastics, and those will require the use of recycling facilities in a proper way.
Recycling isn’t just for single-use products.
In consumption – just visualize every product that ever sat on a shelf in a bulk-purchasing-club-thousands-of-square-mile-megastores are still all on the planet.
As one suggestion, the world can spin the entire “bulk buying for lower cost” mentality, on its head, get the same results with the exact opposite approach: Shared Products. Increase in shared products can have its advantages. Something like Uber for products – each person doesn’t necessarily own every type of product with a million non-recyclable parts – but can obtain them when required, and return them back to the provider who has proper access to the proper recycling processes and/or even facilities. Fewer products would be manufactured, and less would be discarded. Just like ride or bike sharing, the products can be readily available when required for a pre-determined amount of time and then returned at the end of its use. Even coffee cups are within limits. They are used by hundreds of people, and then returned to be recycled properly by its supplier.
Shared product services is an alternative to owning non-recyclable plastic.
In the end, whatever the end-of-life process of a product, once the consumers complete their use then they can make sure to do their part to discard the product. For instance, placing it into the proper bin, or mailing it back to the manufacturer etc.
Many other areas in our lives can benefit from this type of service. Shoes are definitely high on my list. Most people don’t know what to do with their old shoes, and no shoe that ever was created has ever even been recycled. 7 billion people – ~ 14billion feet. Where do they go?
7 billion people – 14billion feet. Where do all the shoes go?
One of the biggest missing links in the recycling process is to get the recyclable material to the recyclers in a recoverable way. The majority of material that gets collected, is contaminated and cannot be recycled. This problem not only diminishes the value of recycling it also takes away from the capacity, as the limited number of human and machine resources are spending their time sorting through contaminated non-recyclables rather than recycling.
Improper recycling habits contaminate the plastic and deem it unusable.
Undeniably this topic is getting more attention than it has in history, however, there is still much room for raising awareness and educating every person about how to recycle properly. Each person in the link is key. And this is now apparent to us because what we always thought was not ours to deal with is literally knocking on our doors in the form of plastic gyres.
To be clear, it’s not about “stopping” production but it’s about producing smart. Producing things that are standard, easy to put together, use, discard, dismantle, and return to the circular economy. The path to that circular economy goes right through recycling for the benefit of both planet, human and economy.
Produce and manufacture only smart products.
Now, why is it important to recycle at all? Plastics are part of the world and society. Wishing it away is unlikely to solve any challenges, especially the challenges that the world is facing for plastics that are already here. With recycling, we can ensure that the resources used to produce the virgin material are reused and repurposed as many times as possible. We can also ensure that there is a standardization of the material making it easier to measure, monitor and capture. Recycling also allows for plastics that are made of recycled material, instead of making virgin plastic every time. In some cases, alternative materials aren’t the solution. In place of a bamboo vacuum cleaner, one that is made of recycled materials is more durable and affordable. Same for many electronics, industrial and medical products. The issue is wider and deeper than just single-use plastics.
Recycling allows for recycled plastic instead of more virgin plastic.
US recycling is low compared to other Western developed countries. And this, with a definition of recycling, that included sending recyclable materials to China. Now that China is no longer taking these materials – if that part is removed from the definition of what recycling means in the US – just by pure rationale the recycling rate drops. There is no data that is available about this. How much of US’s recycling was actually sent to China in previous years is not easy to estimate. What we do know, according to Prof. Jambeck’s study on the impact of the Chinese ban, is that the US has sent over 26.7 Million metric tons of plastics to China between 1988-2016. This number is a portion, a large portion, of what the US reports as being “recycled plastics.”
Recycling rates in the US are very low.
Now that China has banned receiving recyclables – we all start to notice differences. Many recycling facilities are no longer taking #5 plastics. They cannot be recycled in most of the regions in the US. There is practically no recycling facility in the country that can handle #7 plastics. Only a limited number of facilities exist that can process #3, #4, #6 as well. #1 and #2 plastics are only beverage containers and some liquid containers. Other than that even just looking at some single-use items – like yogurt and most take-out containers – are made of #5 and they cannot be recycled widely in this country, but they are used widely.
There are not enough recycling facilities in the US to handle the types & volume used.
Even with a full understanding and agreement that recycling is not the solution, we can still work with the available capacities, develop them and make them better to help us face the challenges rather than shut them down. Without recycling, we’d need to send all existing plastics to landfill and/or current incineration facilities. This is what the world has really been doing, while only promising to work on recycling. The world only has a 9% recycling rate. The rest are still here. Now is the time to take those promises and turn them into realities. Build the capabilities, raise the awareness, increase the demand for recycled plastics while reducing the amount of waste generated, virgin plastics produced and the number of products consumed. Meanwhile, build the required clean waste-to-energy facilities so that at the end of their recyclable lives they can be processed without harmful toxins.
Build up recycling capacities and capabilities.
The aim is that every product that is made of plastic – computers, phones, electronics, toys, shoe soles, outdoor furniture, medical pouches, instruments, industrial machines etc. – not only are made of recycled materials but are made with recyclable recycled materials and are shared. Less waste, less emissions, and more jobs. We all have a lot of work to do together. #wereallinthistogether
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