Published 2 years ago.
About a 7 minute read.
Image: OCG Saving the Ocean/Unsplash
Global recycling rates are at a discouragingly low 13.5%. But who, or what, is to blame? Finger-pointing won’t help:
Policy, consumer demand and companies must work in tandem to close the loop in a still-lacking US recycling system.
Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) advocates argue that recycling narratives
too often toss a hot potato of externalities at consumers. Producers have argued
that consumers just don't care enough to warrant efforts to achieve a circular
Both arguments contain equal degrees of right and wrong.
“Everybody's argument has some merit. You've really got to be a discerning
player to understand all of the pieces we need and figure out an idea that works
That's Peter Hjemdahl, co-founder and chief advocacy officer at RePurpose
Global — which helps companies, brands
and individuals go plastic
by funding innovators on the forefront of preventing plastic waste from getting
into the environment.
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Still, with global waste-diversion rates at a discouragingly low 13.5
it's clear there is a problem. But who, or what, is to blame?
Who to blame is the wrong question. Proper plastics management — with a goal of
circularity — will only progress if all stakeholders embrace the unromantic
truth that reality is complicated.
“It's really hard to put the blame on any one piece in the chain,” said Larine
Urbina, a communications and outreach specialist at Tetra
Pak. “Consumers are confused and the messaging
done by producers is not always easy to understand. To truly 'fix' the issues in
our recycling system, there's responsibility at every level.”
Razor-thin profit margins, the need to protect
and scarcity of quality recycled material make it exceedingly difficult — and
— to realize meaningful plastic recirculation on the producer end. For consumers
and governments, the grave problem of plastics pollution and carbon reduction
makes it easy to put the onus on
— as is now the case in
But consumers want recycled goods, and companies are eager to oblige. Knowing
products are made from recycled content inspires 70 percent of consumers to
recycle more, according to a recent
Consumers need recycling to be simpler and know how to recycle
“What we can't do is make it so complex that the consumer doesn't even know [how
or what] to put in the bin. If they don't know, they won't put anything in the
bin,” Urbina said.
Part of what makes recycling confusing is complex and inconsistent
by suppliers. Creating a product that's simple to recycle is incumbent on
producers’ responsibility — actually putting material in the bin is up to
“The [recycling] system as a whole is struggling,” said Jordan Fengel,
Sustainability Manager at Tetra Pak. “As a nation, the US been at a 30 percent
recycling rate for a long time; several commodities across the board have poor
recovery and recycling rates, yet hold enormous value for being put back into
the circular economy as feedstock for reuse and
Fengel believes barriers to a circular economy aren't corporate lethargy,
blame-gaming, or necessarily consumer laziness or indifference: It's poor
and anemic policy.
Brands want the material — and hopefully, policy will soon require it.
“What companies are more interested in is utilizing recycled content if it's
going to be available, and doing more proactive initiatives and measures that
can get them in the 'We're OK' consumer eye,” Fengel said.
But for now, the supply just isn't there. Commitments by the largest brands are way beyond what current infrastructure and
demand currently supply.
To meet brand commitments around post-consumer recycled content (PCR), plastic
reclamation capacity in the US would need to
by at least 50 percent from current capacity. PCR commitments will meet or
exceed impending PCR policies that will likely pass several state legislatures
this year, not to mention potential national policy soon. A 50 percent increase
may soon be too small a number.
Take Tetra Pak's own cartons. The infrastructure and material science isn't
there yet to replace virgin fibers used in Tetra Pak design. The company is
working to incorporate recycled content into its cartons, in addition to
pledging 100 percent renewable packaging material by 2030. But without
certified, quality, recycled
and infrastructure, commitments and R&D will go only so far.
Another thorn in the side are massive
still freely doled out to virgin material extraction. Virgin material subsidies
are so baked into the landscape that few view rocking the boat as the best way
forward. Artificially deflated virgin material prices are still something the
industry accepts as an indelible reality. For now.
Even if PCR sees greater utilization, much is still of lower quality — and,
without hefty policy and incentives, it can't currently stand on its own against
To help promote the use of PCR, the three legs of a closed-loop system need to
Fengel is hopeful that consumers, companies and policy can coalesce to close the
system. Right now, industry is taking its cues from consumers, who are shifting
purchasing decisions based on intrinsic
rather than the cheapest option.
“Consumers have a choice, and they're putting their dollars where their values
are,” he said.
Internal corporate motivation and consumer demand are two legs of a three-legged
stool propping up a circular economy. The missing leg is the policy piece.
The US is one of the only OECD countries without a
national recycling program. Absent national policy, US industries are spurred by
consumer demand. If policy and demand were aligned, the material loop would be
much closer to closing.
But companies are acting now: Purposeful materials
and reuse have profound business and environmental merits that can stand on
their own two feet.
“We can't wait around for government policy,” Hjemdahl said. “Those take years
and decades — we really don't have years and decades. That's why you see a lot
of businesses stepping up. They realize they're a part of the problem; and they
want to be a part of the solution.”
Businesses are investing a lot of time and money into proactive steps, Fengel
“Proactiveness is going to be, in my opinion, an effective and efficient way for
businesses to operate,” he said.
Proactive measures are greeted by consumers willing to pay premiums for recycled
content, picking up the slack where government policy and incentives are
Policy, consumer demand and companies must work in tandem to close the loop in a
still-lacking US recycling system. Policy will set standards and provide
incentives, companies will enact them, and consumers will respond by feeding
more and higher-quality content back into recycling streams to meet demand.
The collective might of organizations helps spur innovation and funding for
recycling solutions. Hundreds of companies have joined the Ellen MacArthur
Foundation's New Plastic
the US Plastics
and other cross-industry
to move circularity forward. And if they fail on these very visible commitments,
they'll answer to a growing number of organizations and individuals ready to
hold them accountable.
Organizations such as RePurpose Global are scaling innovative plastic solutions
through funding access. Companies such as Tetra Pak embed purposeful design into
their packaging solutions to ensure materials do the most good throughout their
Ultimately, as countless businesses and organizations lead by example and
consumer behavior and demand continue to reflect their
the missing piece of US state and national policies will begin to take shape —
and the prospect of a circular economy will edge closer to reality.
Published Jul 27, 2021 2pm EDT / 11am PDT / 7pm BST / 8pm CEST
Christian is a writer, photographer, filmmaker, and outdoor junkie obsessed with the intersectionality between people and planet. He partners with brands and organizations with social and environmental impact at their core, assisting them in telling stories that change the world.