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Packaging and Recycling Part 1: Why Can’t We All Just Recycle?

Life in a pandemic is challenging in many ways, especially when it is compounded by economic stress and an awakening to the consequences of systemic inequality, racism and injustice all in a world increasingly pressured by climate change. We are all challenged to stay safe and healthy and to take responsibility for helping others who are struggling with daily living. None of this is easy. But some things should be easy, like doing things to lessen our impact on the planet.

Households have long been a target for messages on ways to reduce environmental impacts of daily life. In the 1970s, home energy use was targeted in response to the oil embargo imposed on the U.S. and on the pollution caused by using fossil fuels. In the 1980s, drought brought messages on water conservation to communities and households. In the 1990s, curbside recycling became commonplace along with instructions on source-separating recyclable materials.

For household energy and water use, technology became the primary means for maintaining ongoing reductions—low flow plumbing fixtures, energy and water efficient appliances, drip systems for landscaping, insulation for dwelling units and solar systems for electricity and hot water. There are still some behavioral actions that contribute to reduced energy and water use—shorter showers, laundering in cold water on short cycles—but these are incremental additions to the major environmental benefits provided by improved technologies.

Recycling, however, is different. There aren’t any household-based technologies that offer primary benefits. Recycling depends wholly on resident behavior— albeit with a little help from simple technology (bins!). And despite decades of messaging, the recycling rate remains stuck at around 35% of household and other municipal solid waste. As a country, we seem to be incapable of solving what should be a relatively easy problem. That’s because reality turns out to be quite complicated.

Household behavior is just one part of an extensive system that involves local jurisdictions, collection specialists, contractors, intermediaries, processors, re-formulators, transporters and logistic companies and manufacturers. No entity coordinates any of these actors, rather they are driven by market conditions and, in some cases, contractual obligations. Think of the packaging that the products we buy comes in, which is immediately rendered useless when it is opened, and the product is removed. You’re immediately faced with the choice of putting that packaging in the recycling bin or the trash. What goes through your mind when you’re faced with that choice?

If you’re conscientious, you’ll ask yourself if the packaging is recyclable, which requires that you know the material(s) in the packaging, the materials that are recyclable in your community, which bin to use if you have a multi-bin system, and what you have to do before putting the packaging in the bin (clean, remove stickers, tape, etc.). And since recycling is driven by market conditions, the answers that were appropriate last month, may not be appropriate this month. It takes work to make recycling work and that reality leads many to conclude it’s easier to put recyclable materials in the trash.

But what if we had a different system?

What if we had a system where we didn’t have to do all that work? What if we had a system where all packaging is recyclable all the time? Would we push the recycling rate up over 50%? What would it take?

Before we do anything, we would need to recognize that packaging (and all other products and materials) are part of a system that allows manufacturers to use just about any materials that they want (subject to limited regulations around safety) and households to decide whatever they want to do with that packaging.

Change will come if we create a system where the only packaging that is used is made from widely recyclable (and recycled) materials and where packaging is prohibited from being thrown in the trash.

While this sounds radical, particularly the no packaging in the trash part, it is achievable. It’s already illegal to throw electronics, paint, batteries, and toxic chemicals in the trash in many communities. A ban on the disposal of packaging is not out of the question. But a ban would need to be accompanied by other actions to make a packaging system work.

In Part 2 of this blog post, I’ll talk about the other parts of a functioning packaging system.

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