Recycling is something we are all familiar with, and it is working in America, but not exceedingly well, in spite of its huge industrial size per EPA: 681,000 jobs and $37.8 billion in wages. Other countries, especially in Europe, have a much stronger recycling culture and recycle more effectively. Our overall recycling diversion rate has a new goal from EPA: to reach 50% diversion of Municipal Solid Waste by 2030. In 2017, EPA estimates that only 94.2 million tons out of 267.8 million tons of MSW was recycled, or 35%, on average. Some things, like ferrous metal, is recycled at a much higher rate, and only 8% of plastics were recycled. If you are reading this, you are probably doing your part to recycle. Recyclers typically understand that recyclable items are a majority of their weekly waste, and those who start composting or otherwise diverting their food waste have VERY LITTLE waste going to the landfill.
We all know by now that landfills are filling up, making future waste more expensive to deal with. We’ve all heard about “more plastic than fish” in the oceans by 2050, if not already. Have you heard (from The Story of Stuff) that everything you want to dispose of is only 30% of all of its waste? Yes, 70% of the waste came from waste created during extraction, manufacturing, distribution, and consumption. This is the story that we need your voice to help remake – we need to remake the way we make things.
Sure, you could buy less stuff. Not a bad idea, but when you really need something, you need it. We tend to over-consume, and you know yourself better than anyone else, so that’s the part you can control. You control what you buy and how you dispose of it. Check out The Story of Stuff on YouTube. It’s 19 minutes of great information. Then check out Forget Shorter Showers on YouTube - 12 minutes of more great information about waste.
What can you do to influence the entire manufacturing culture? Let’s be real here. Not too much. But what can you leverage? When lots of folks influence manufacturers, they change. They are in business to make money, which generally means they have made products people buy, and if they hear that people are unhappy with something about the product (like how it’s made or something), and that people might stop buying the product, they might change. Complaints, at scale, can work. Apple changed when people complained about them dropping out from the EPEAT Eco Standard program in 2012 and immediately rejoined EPEAT.
Let’s all understand the recycling system because it is not working particularly well. There are 6 major players, and you are one of them:
- Manufacturers JUST want to make stuff
- Marketers JUST want to sell stuff
- Consumers JUST want to consume stuff (you are here)
- Cities JUST want to remove waste
- Haulers JUST want to haul waste
- Processors (MRF’s) JUST want to sort waste
And then we have SOME manufacturers who want to use the recycled material to make stuff.
There are no magic answers. However, EPA’s strategy is moving in a great direction, and by considering EPR (Extended Producer Responsibility), we might see some movement from the above recycling system. Another is diverting food waste, which is about a quarter of the waste going to landfills and a terrible thing to put in landfills as it produces the virulent greenhouse gas methane. Once we get composting facilities enhanced for post-consumer food waste, we can start composting compostable packaging and food containers that bio-degrade into compost at scale.
All this takes is change. The more we stay the same, the more trouble we will see from the degradation of the planetary system. Be a part of the change you want to see in the world.