Finding value in waste
By Sandy Dhesi, Commercial Manager
There is no doubting recycling’s prominent position in contemporary thinking about sustainability. We are wholeheartedly committed to recycling as a cultural project. You only have to scroll through the digital noise surrounding #WorldRecyclingDay.
As we become increasingly satiated, and in many cases sickened, by the excesses of modern consumerism, we are rethinking our relationship with the physical stuff that fills our lives. Dissatisfied with empty materialism, we seek new ways to re-use our material culture. Recycling, turning something considered waste into something with renewed value, is our primary collective response to the problems arising from consumption.
You could say we have made something that could be fairly simple really complicated. And it’s therefore easy to empathise with the public who want to do the right thing regarding recycling.
Labelling often requires a doctorate, kerbside collections are a postcode lottery, and council recycling centres are often difficult to access without a car. So, while packaging piles up – you can’t help but wonder whether it will end up in a landfill in the developing world, anyway.
READ MORE: No more waste chances. Why we must be smart about communicating about packaging waste to make long-term thinking and action compatible with our irrational human tendencies.
The waste industry is ripe for massive innovation and change. And we can no longer acquire and discard unconsciously.
Yes, change begins with awareness. But maybe it’s time to fixate less on recycling. That might appear odd in an article about recycling, but it’s supposed to be a last resort: limiting waste has more impact, and re-use is a better strategy where possible.
The messages of the three Rs (reduce, re-use, recycle) have been lost in many ways, and we focused on the thing that is the least important but probably the easiest to grasp.
Quite often, we miss the most important factor: Consume less.
The first R is Refuse, and the second is Reduce. And we need to talk much more about consumerism and eliminating excess and unnecessary packaging.
Ask yourself, why do we need all of this plastic? It’s because of our consumption habits. We’re always amazed by the number of articles that ignore consumers demanding plastic.
Recycling, and the other “R” words are a workaround for the inability of the consumer to engage in thoughtful consumption.
Too much trash talk
Of the 2 billion tons of waste produced yearly globally, only roughly 13.5% is recycled. This is often due to a lack of infrastructure and discarded products made from a combination of materials that are difficult to separate.
Design is only part of the problem. Ultimately, big business represents us – some run further ahead, and others do not. But the playing field is not level, and unsustainable options are cheaper because polluters don’t pay the real price for society and the planet.
Accelerating the global implementation of proven waste management practices – like cost effective deposit return systems, mixed waste sorting, and advanced mechanical recycling – can keep valuable resources in circulation and out of the natural environment.
The debate here often misses a lot and conflates quite a lot, too. Mudslinging on doing the right thing is just as bad as greenwashing or creative accounting to make things look bad, too. The moral high ground can be a slippery place.
There is an effective recycling infrastructure here in Europe, highlighted by the 17% jump in installed plastic recycling capacity in Europe. It took years to build, for new habits to form, and for people to collect instead of throw away. And that drove the recycling rate up to 49.6 per cent in 2021, putting it 22 percentage points higher than at the start of the millennium.
So, plastic recycling works well in an ideal world. But in the real world, many people still don’t care and throw things away, and also lots of cities and towns with just a standard bin in the parks, so there is no option to recycle. We need to do much more if we want plastic recycling to work.
We can’t blame the consumers for this. It is an industrial issue, and producers should take full responsibility.
Honesty is the best policy
Policy backed by legislation is surely the essential foundation for the circular economy. When designed well, Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) allows us to transform how we manage packaging waste for recycling. The key is setting enforceable performance targets to align all stakeholders, invest, and continually improve the system. In this way, EPR does much more than shift who pays for the program.
While consumers certainly play a role in reducing personal reliance on plastic, learning about local recycling systems and how to sort their waste, manufacturers feeding modern demand for plastic packaging must have extended responsibility for creating lower-footprint packaging and collecting/re-using this waste.
READ MORE: See what others don’t. At a time when self-awareness matters more than ever, data can help you see what others don’t. But the influence we can have is just as great.
Without policy, we will watch the same fluctuation and lack of long-term success in the circular economy as in all other behaviour-based, emotion-driven programs. Policy helps to drive infrastructure, accountability, and funding for programs like the circular economy.
EPR will be one of the largest brand owner tax increases ever seen. It will likely put some smaller businesses (who pass the threshold or fail to mitigate its impact appropriately) out of business. The huge money collected from this is designed to influence the collection, sorting, recycling and re-use of all materials.
Recycling rates will likely grow exponentially due to the renewed investment through EPR, which affects all recovery and processing.
There is plenty of work to do, but EPR represents the much-needed roadmap for a future of limited resources and growing demand. We are hardwired to take the uncoveted and make it useful again. And the investment is happening because waste has value with the correct policies.