Much has been written about last week’s Greenpeace report decrying the state of plastic recycling. Our recycling system is not just broken but considered a joke, a defeatist view that will cost us in the long run if we abandon the idea of recycling. Indeed, at a meeting of climate professionals in Seattle last week, several people told me “recycling is a lie.” Greenpeace is correct — plastic recycling rates have fallen — but we risk turning a necessary step in the circular economy into a lost cause by making fatalistic and premature conclusions.
Here’s the thing: if people don’t take the first step to recycle anything, there is no hope of creating a circular, low-carbon economy that reuses raw materials instead of mining, drilling, or clearcutting the planet into desolation. We need to use a lot less single-use plastic and standardize on a few recyclable plastics for packaging use. The United States must join the global plastics treaty. But we also need to recycle everything we use instead of just a few valuable materials like steel and aluminum. And we need to recognize it will take time.
Greenpeace reports that plastic recycling rates have declined to about 5%, down from 8.7% in 2018. This is due to three reasons: 1. the volume of plastics produced has increased; 2. contamination rates remain high, making the process unprofitable with most current technology, and; 3. insufficient investment in domestic processing capacity following China’s, and later the rest of Asia’s, decision to stop importing our trash because it is too dirty to be profitable. There’s a fourth reason. Americans don’t have the information and often lack the inclination to prepare plastic and other materials for recycling. Earth911 is working hard to address this by updating local guidance, but it remains a perennial issue.
Humans don’t want to clean up after themselves or pay anyone to do it. That is a lifestyle decision that resulted from our building Recycling 1.0 on top of our 1950s-era trash-hauling infrastructure. It’s clear that when there are appropriate incentives and/or infrastructure in place, materials do get recycled successfully. The global recycling rates for aluminum (75%), steel (60%), other metals (~30%), cardboard (at least 70%), and paper (43%) demonstrate that we can do much better than 5% (plastics) or 15% (e-waste) recycling rates; even plastic bottle recycling (27.2%) points to the opportunity to improve compared to all plastics.
Recycling 2.0 will look more like the internet, a decentralized and flexible system that supports more specialized materials flows. More local and regional recyclers will use the logistical capabilities that helped build Uber and AirBnB, for example, to connect with nearby sources of recyclable materials. It will allow businesses, governments, nonprofits, and citizens to contribute and potentially earn through improved recovery and processing of today’s waste into tomorrow’s goods.
What We Can Do Today
There are a number of clear steps everyone can take, many mentioned by Greenpeace. The most important point is that we have accepted manufacturers’ claims of recyclability without making investments in our recycling infrastructure for too long. A circular economy isn’t built on labels, it grows out of investments by cities, counties, states, nonprofits, and private enterprises in recycling infrastructure — the right mix of investments is very much under debate.
Declaring that investments are not producing results in just the four years following China’s ban on waste imports and during a global pandemic is short-sighted. It’s like declaring that we should not invest in educating a kindergartner because they are not ready to attend Harvard. Recycling 2.0 will take time, and the process can be accelerated with targeted investments and incentives. There are many valuable benefits, including lowering the long-term cost of raw materials, improved health and environmental outcomes, and regional economies that keep more money in the community instead of sending it to multinationals.
The sustainability opportunity, along with its difficult challenges, is the biggest our species has ever faced.
Use Less Plastic
Single-use plastic did not exist two generations ago, and it is reasonable to think we can reduce the need for single-use plastics with other packaging innovations. Each of us can shop with an eye toward eliminating plastic from our cart, but the real responsibility lies with consumer products companies that must decide to abandon plastic unless it is absolutely necessary. Consumers can send that signal by demanding better options. Companies, however, must take the initiative, even if plastic appears to be so convenient.
Each of us can reduce the single-use plastics we buy and throw away. There’s no excuse for not recycling 95% of the plastic we use. Consider the end-of-life of any product before you make the purchase. Is it recyclable? If you’re not sure, don’t buy it.
We’re working to add product-specific information to the Earth911 database to help you screen your purchases for recyclability. Contact us if you’d like to add your product to the database to help buyers understand their recycling options.
Standardize Packaging on Recyclable Options
There will certainly be some plastic in our future. Without going into extensive detail, there are many scenarios where plastic is useful, including sealing sterile medical equipment, in long-lasting items such as appliances and furniture, and in building materials that can last longer and provide capabilities other materials cannot. However, we must prevent the runaway invention and distribution of unrecyclable plastics — most of the materials labeled as #7 plastic fall into this category, for example. Instead, packaging plastics must be standardized so that consumers and recyclers can recycle them after use instead of sending more plastic to landfills.
Every plastic should be correctly numbered to facilitate recycling. If we are going to give a type of plastic a number, it should also be recyclable. Otherwise, it’s just junk that will lie in a landfill for centuries. This is a simple rule that could be transformative.
Make “Recyclable” Mean What It Says
Greenpeace calls out the idea that a 30% threshold, where a material is recyclable in the curbside bin at 30% of homes, represents the minimum required before it can be labeled “Recyclable.” We must do much better, and the responsibility is shared by governments and industries. If we want to achieve 100% recyclability in packaging by 2025, the goal established by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, we must invest to make recycling available at 100% of homes, apartments, and businesses. Write your local solid waste authority to demand this in your community. And when you see a product with a “Recyclable” label but cannot find a local recycling option, tell the company that made it you expect them to help bring that recycling capacity to fruition before you will buy it.
The irony of the many complaints that recycling is too expensive is that valuable raw materials — such as the rare earths and precious metals used in consumer electronics that are tossed into the trash — can be the source of long-term, valuable revenue for whatever entity, government or commercial, that takes the time, effort, and expense to collect and process it. Governments must set standards that require recycled material in new products to drive this evolution of the recycling system. That works, and we’re seeing the early signs of progress in recycled content, for example, in beverage bottles.
Write your Congressional representatives, state legislators, and city leaders to demand they set standards for recycled content in what is sold and thrown away in your country. Industry has shown it won’t take all the steps necessary without regulations or, at least, the threat of regulation if they do not act.
If you own a business, make the decision to use recycled materials in what you make or sell. If you’re an employee, tell your employer there are better options — employees are a rising voice for change. That will create pressure upstream in the supply chain to deliver recyclable options or lose your next order. If you are a consumer, choose recyclable options and follow through by recycling those items instead of throwing them away. Write to companies that don’t offer recyclable or compostable packaging in single-use products, or just stop buying them. It sounds hard, inconvenient, and time-consuming, but nothing big ever happened without a lot of sweat and effort. These actions will drive innovation.
Every one of us can create innovation and share ideas. More ideas do lead to less waste. Look for new options in materials, follow the changes in recycling options, and celebrate the wins as well as decry the failures, because that dynamic tension is what leads to progress. Perhaps you feel we should go back to pre-industrial living, but we think you’ll find that a hard sell for most folks. The human path moves forward, and innovation is critical to extracting our species and the rest of the planet from the climate crisis.
Progress will require technology. Today’s stone tools are computers and biotechnology, which can be profoundly helpful or damaging. As Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand wrote, “We are as Gods and we might as well get good at it.” Brand, who also co-founded the Long Now Foundation, also wrote, “I adore the un-urgency, the realization that it takes time to get things right, and that there is plenty of time to do that. Just keep bearing down [emphasis added].”
Change takes time. We have to measure and discuss it along the way, but patience — even in the face of crisis — is a virtue. 2030 is both coming fast and a long way off. If we can get plastic recycling rates to 50% in the next eight years while reducing the use of unrecyclable plastic, we can be 75% of the way toward our goal at the end of the decade.
We Make Our Way, It Doesn’t Just Appear
Giving up on recycling means we abandon the idea of a circular economy, an essential feature of the post-industrial era we must reach to end the climate crisis. Recycling only became plainly necessary to modern humans when we realized that our strip-mining, drilling, and throw-away culture was a dead end, and that debate has lasted for 50 years, since the first Earth Day. We’re paying the price now in extreme weather, rising seas, drought, and threats to our food supply. Just because recycling doesn’t work today doesn’t mean we can’t make it better.
If we’re going to talk about change, we need to get serious about changing. No one will do it for us, so let’s keep bearing down instead of declaring that recycling is a failure or a lie.