Recycling in the United States is an economically unsustainable trend — or at least that’s what New York Times writer John Tierney recently argued in his opinion piece, “The Reign of Recycling," published in the October 4th Sunday Review. Tierney’s arguments focus almost entirely on the inefficiency and economic viability of recycling, suggesting that CPG companies and major brands, municipalities, and even consumers should stop worrying about recycling, and that linear disposal methods are successful enough for the sake of cost-effectiveness and profitability. I believe that this is a dangerous conclusion to make in the 21st century, a time where the need for long-term sustainability strategies and circular waste solutions are more apparent than ever.
We know full well the function economics play in recycling. If the value of a potentially recyclable commodity is higher than collection, logistic and processing costs, there is an economic incentive to recycle. But what about obviously less recyclable materials, such as multilayered films or plastic sachet packaging — materials that are, universally, considered non-recyclable? To go along with Tierney’s argument, landfilling and incineration are the only economically viable alternatives.
There are a variety of environmental subjects that Tierney does not approach: the trillions of pieces of plastic floating on top and piling up on the bottom of our oceans; the difficulty of accurately identifying the health risks posed by waste incineration; the destructive linear model of consumption and production that resigns raw materials to single-use lives (burying waste and other materials in a landfill or burning in an incinerator). These (among many, many others) are all relevant topics that must be considered to accurately determine the environmental effects of our currently wasteful society.
Tierney also brings up the price comparison between recycled plastics and the plunging price of virgin plastic, thanks in no small part to the recent dip in oil prices. He fails to mention, however, the incredible volatility of global crude oil prices. In fact, a rebound is already predicted to occur over the course of the next five years. Recycled plastics can be a great way for manufacturers to avoid these volatile costs, do something environmentally beneficial, and strengthen supply chain security.
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Recycled material in general can be a great way to build supply chain security overall. My company, for example, works with dozens of manufacturers to facilitate the collection and recycling of their pre- and post-consumer product and packaging waste. In a variety of these partnerships, after aggregating the collected waste we send it back to the manufacturer, where the recycled material is reintegrated into existing supply chains. It reduces waste and costs, and gives the company a competitive edge in the market.
As the need for sustainability strategies rises, even government institutions are increasingly demanding more recycled content in products, more recyclable packaging, and more substantial overall sustainability practices. Packaging taxes and extended producer responsibility (EPR) legislation is already active in many parts of the world, making manufacturers responsible for the collection and recycling (or reuse) of their pre- and post-consumer packaging waste.
The European Der Grüne Punkt (The Green Dot) network is possibly the most notable EPR system in the world, essentially taxing product manufacturers based on their waste-diversion strategies. The Green Dot’s licensing fees act as an incentive to increase sustainability practices, encouraging product manufacturers to collect and recycle their pre- and post-consumer waste (lowering their respective fees as a result). These strategies can help create a better ecological balance between production and consumption.
We can’t forget about consumers in this conversation either, as they are increasingly prone to making purchasing decisions based on product — and packaging — sustainability. Conscious consumers are reading labels and packaging for recyclability and sustainability claims, buying from socially responsible CPG companies, and are even inclined to pay premiums for eco-friendly or socially responsible products. Does this mean that consumers are falling into a "green marketing" trap, or — gasp! — that they actually care about the planet? Consumers will reward those manufacturers that make environmental stewardship, recyclability, and sustainability a part of their business models.
We have to take a step back and evaluate the economic and environmental costs to potential alternatives to recycling. Calling on short-term efficiencies and a lack of profitability will do nothing but undermine future efforts to strengthen our recycling infrastructure and to sustainably develop for future generations. Being complacent with our disposable society is not how we will accomplish this.
I couldn’t help but note the irony of the Times running an opinion piece decrying recycling because of a lack of obvious profitably on the very same day that yet another US State — South Carolina — was experiencing historic flooding and being called to a State of Emergency. The tragic events in South Carolina are leading to loss of life and billions of dollars of damage to public and private property. Unfortunately, Mr. Tierney and his editors at the New York Times failed to include these costs in their myopic calculations.