U.S. Recycling Stream in Shambles: How CPG Companies can Change the Game
Local governments are significantly reducing or suspending recycling programs, due to inefficiencies plaguing the industry. Conditions are worsened by China’s crackdown on imports of recyclable material. The National Sword policy bans imports of solid waste, contaminated recyclables, and low-quality recyclables. Before the ban, China took on nearly 70 percent of the world’s plastic waste, much of which came from the U.S. Now, as a result of the new policy, materials once considered recyclable go to landfills. According to data organized by the Waste Business Journal, total landfill capacity in the U.S. is predicted to shrink by more than 15 percent over the next five years.
China’s about-face on importing recycled waste merely compounds upon previously existing inefficiencies in America’s recycling efforts. So why are the U.S.’s recycling programs such a mess? Here’s three reasons:
- Wishful Recycling –People want to recycle, and in their desires to do good, they often do the opposite. Lumping unrecyclable material in with recyclables wreaks havoc on the recycling stream, requiring increased labor at sorting facilities where trash is separated from re-usable materials. In some cases, contaminants cause an entire load of recyclable materials to be diverted to the landfill.
- Recycling Confusion – Perhaps improper recycling is a product of confusion; not knowing how to sort materials or decide what is recyclable. An online poll from the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) showed that 28 percent of respondents did not understand “…what types of plastic (their) municipality accepts in their curbside recycling program.” Responses of this nature may explain why only nine percent of all plastics EVER produced have been recycled.
- Contamination Limits – As a result of these poor recycling habits, contamination occurs. With China’s contamination limit of 0.5 percent on imported recyclables, it’s nearly impossible for the U.S. to process materials suitable for import. Consider this: the average contamination rate, according to Waste Management, is 25 percent – meaning one in four items are not fit for processing by China’s standards.
Reduction is Key
Forty percent of the world’s plastic usage comes from packaging – packaging of food, beverage, personal care, cosmetic, toys and almost every other product on store shelves. With the U.S. inefficiencies and China’s crackdown, reducing the amount of plastic that enters circulation is becoming increasingly important. There are a myriad of ways to accomplish reduction as a consumer, but it’s the CPG companies that can make the biggest impact.
Companies can reduce the amount of plastics used in their packaging even through small through design changes, using degradable plastics or other materials. For example, PepsiCo is reportedly testing its Aquafina water in aluminum cans.
Let us go on the record to say we’re not against recycling at SPRIM. But we do believe sustainability will be achieved through more than one avenue – hence, the reason there’s three words in the old phrase reduce, reuse, recycle – and CPG companies need to exhaust all of them to reduce their plastic footprints.