Is Better Recycling Really Good Enough?

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By Doug Studer
Galvanizer, Lifelong Learner, Thoreauvian Naturalist
Deskey & BluEarth CEO 

A mostly sunny week in Seattle without rain is an amazing thing in and of itself. Add to that tours and presentations that highlighted not only the area but what our industry is doing to get a handle on single-use plastic, and it was truly a remarkable week at Sustainable Packaging Coalition’s Impact 2019 conference. 

Scientists and environmentalists agree that our plastic pollution problem won’t be solved by more or better recycling in itself. The real solution is global adaptation to a “zero waste” lifestyle through, among other things, the adoption of a circular economy model and cradle-to-cradle design inspired by nature.

I am not against recycling, in fact, I’m a big proponent. It’s the best option we have with our current infrastructure. But like most people in the world, I live where there is no curbside recycling service. I have the means to sort my recyclables and drive 10 miles to the nearest drop bin, but most people don’t. The landfill is their only option. 

We’ve become dependent on single-use consumer goods, so it’s not likely that portable yogurt containers and disposable water bottles are going to disappear. But brand owners and consumers are lining up in their belief that sustainable packaging is vital to the health of our planet and ourselves, and advances are being made. One of this year’s presenters, Loop™ Industries, is using chemical recycling to break down everyday PET plastic to its molecular level and reconstitute it as a “new” packaging. Their mission is not to rid the world of plastic but to “accelerate its shift toward sustainable plastic and away from our dependence on fossil fuels.” A kinder, gentler plastic. 

Another company, also called Loop, has developed a system for distributing to and collecting from consumers’ doorsteps reusable containers for everything from ice cream to laundry detergent. Companies such as Nestle, Procter & Gamble, and Seventh Generation have signed on to test this circular economy concept—test being the key word. It remains to be seen whether modern consumers will embrace the “milkman model” and accept reusable containers as viable options.

Regardless of their ultimate success or failure, these companies represent the kind of thinking that is needed to upset the recycle cycle and open up our thinking. According to the World Economic Forum, the top three skills needed for the 2020 workforce are complex problem solving, critical thinking, and creativity. While those skills can certainly help us come up with better recycling, I judge they would be better used exploring new ways to deal with the harms of packaging on a systemic level.

Luckily for us, a great place to start surrounds us. Step outside into nature and explore the solutions that have worked for billions of years. Nature’s organisms and systems are time tested and have been refined over eons—they are champion adaptors. (By the way, the term for those that didn’t adapt is extinction.) Take a walk in your friendly neighborhood forest to see examples of the most efficient closed loop systems on the planet. There is no waste in nature. Waste from one feeds the next, which trades nutrients to the next, which provides resources to the next, and so on. Cracking that code—learning from masters much more tenured than ourselves on this planet—holds the key to our future, perhaps even our very survival as a species.

If human beings want to be around longer than the plastic we produce, we need to find solutions to the pollution problem that are far more effective than our mere ability to improve recycling. In fact, the best approach to recycling is to never start the cycle at all. Find ways to live and consume that are compatible with the operating conditions all organisms on Earth are subject to. Find better models for closing the loop. Find better examples for containing our consumables for a defined time. Find materials that are not made from the ancient energy locked away in fossil fuels. Find ways to limit our impact and improve our odds of being long-term inhabitants of this place we call home.