To Transform the Plastic Crisis: Invest in Local Recycling Infrastructure, Globally
(This is part of the series for 7 Main Areas of Focus to Transform the Plastic Crisis)
Overall it is true “we can’t recycle our way out of the plastic crisis,” and still that is only part of the story.
Imagine how much we’ve invested in computers, production, manufacturing vs. recycling since the 60s or 70s. In most of the US recycling has not changed since then.
Using the recycling process and technologies today and saying recycling doesn't work, is like using a Commodore 64 today and saying computers don’t work.
We can’t rely on recycling using the ways recycling systems work today — they’re not. Only 9% of all plastics have ever been recycled — that should be evidence for anybody to recognize it’s not working. Does this mean we throw our hands-up, declare an entire industry should be shut-down and give-up? Not so fast.
Given proper processes, quick turnarounds and true RE-cycling it is part of the future of societies around the world. As long as there is a single item made of plastic — i.e your car’s dashboard, the toy truck, shoe soles, beauty products, etc. -recycling, and much stronger, efficient and effective UP-cycling & RE-cycling need to be part of waste management. Without it, plastic “waste” is either burned in an incinerator or “waste-to-energy” facility, landfilled, buried or just openly burned. Once the material is created, it has value, it has use — and since it lasts for a long time it is up to us to find a good way to make it work for us, and the planet, rather than let it destroy us.
However, regardless of how efficient the recycling process is if we continue with the current production rates we will not recycle our way out of it. We cannot clean our way out of it either. So, though ALL of these solutions are required, none are singularly enough.
So we just need to fix the recycling system right? No biggie.
Not exactly. We do need to fix the dysfunctional recycling system and we also need to change everything else— especially our production and consumption habits. Everything that is single-use should be banned from being made of plastic, and completely wiped off the face of the planet. It’s really just a return back a few decades for consumption — use more reusables, avoid wasteful disposables, get rid of the disposables culture, and design more durable and meaningful products that are easy to capture and return back into the economy.
Why do we send things to China?
For decades we’ve been sending our plastics to China — because it was cheaper than to have them processed here in the US — and much of the West. A few factors contribute to this fact but the most major one is that the capacities and capabilities to recycle don’t exist in the US. For instance, there are only a handful of facilities in the entire nation that can process #5 plastics — think yogurt containers. Just taking that as an example — consider the kind of volume — 300 million people if 1/3rd ate yogurt in a week — and it really seems higher — that’s 100million of them at least in a week! Now think about all higher quality plastics — dashboards, PVC piping, electronics, car parts, melamine products, composites, etc. That is valuable plastic, that is value. But since China “has” the capacity to deal with the waste let’s just send it there instead of building more recycling facilities here. And we don’t even know what China does with most of the plastics we send to them.
We’ve truly been robbing ourselves of opportunity and economic value. Some of the impact of sending recyclables to China:
- Robbing the local economy of jobs that would be created by building facilities domestically,
- Preventing revenue that would be earned by recycling and re-selling a product that we already paid to “import,”
- Increasing our carbon footprint by sending “waste” across the world,
- Stalling overall economic growth gained from products that are Made in the USA,
- A possible GDP growth in the trillions according to Accenture if we implemented a fully sufficient and circular waste management system.
How did we normalize not being able to recycle our own plastic resources?
Why do the US and the West have to care about waste, plastic and recycling?
The increasing awareness campaigns by environmentalists usually highlight the infamous 5 countries as those who dump the majority of their plastics into the rivers that lead to the ocean pollution today. No dispute — they dump a lot of plastics into their rivers. Is it coincidental that they are also the top countries who import the West’s waste from their consumption habits?
Considering China’s overall recycling rate is a mere 25% and their population is over a billion people, add to that all the crazy numbers you’ve seen of plastics that the US and the rest of the “developed” countries were sending them, it’s a miracle we’re not completely buried. The developed countries are basically telling the developing countries to have a better infrastructure so that they can, not only handle their own waste but also ours. This is where the system broke. What most of the US considered as being “recycled” were just passed on and turned into China’s problem. The only thing that was being recycled was really who’s problem the post-production and post-consumer waste was. Then China called it quits — it was too creating too much of a problem for their people and environment, as well as making them turn into the world’s scapegoat for plastic waste, they stopped taking the unmanaged waste in January 2018. Which is why the West went, and is going, through a very rude awakening.
The public should know there are consequences to not recycling properly:
- More effort is required to be put into the process — increasing the price of recycled materials
- Polluted cities and increased diseases — clogged storm drains aren’t just costly for taxpayers to clean up, they also collect water and cause the increase of bacteria and diseases, especially in third world countries
- Environmental damage — while paper/cardboard results in cutting down extra trees, plastics result in polluting waterways, seas, soil, and the ocean
- Others… there are many more consequences that we’ve somehow normalized in our modern age — such as higher taxes, emitting excess carbon, loss of labor and jobs, etc.
Instead of suffering through the pains of having no place to send our waste — it’s time we saw the silver lining and recognized the opportunity that it is: This is our chance to create jobs, industries, and business domestically! We claim we want to buy more “Made in the US” goods right? Here’s our chance.
Step up the education and awareness campaigns
Recycling has been suffering through an enormous PR problem. The much needed recycling awareness is probably best addressed through media campaigns — think of the Straw — rather than purely education in schools.
The majority of our population in the US doesn’t understand how recycling works. The population seems to think there are elves sorting through garbage and cleaning them “away” every night. To many “single-stream” means they can throw everything away together with the trash in the same bin — which is wrong. Single Stream and Dual Stream are used in waste management to refer only to recyclable materials. They refer only to recyclable materials. Single stream meaning all recyclable materials go into one bin, and dual stream meaning separate paper from everything else. Trash ALWAYS go into a separate TRASH bin. There is always a separate trash bin for trash.
Another gap in communication is that most people don’t understand recycled products — most plastic that is from “Recycled” is somehow considered as being less in quality.
Finally, every single person who is looking to create a better city, infrastructure and nature needs to promote recycling and refrain from giving confusing and mixed messages. Recycling is a must, it’s non-negotiable. It’s the glue that makes circularity possible. And no it’s not today’s recycling it’s a better and transformed recycling for ALL things — not focused on just low to no value flimsy disposable plastics. We’re talking about recycling systems for shoes, car dashboards, electronics, etc.
Change the perception for plastic: It’s a valuable resource!
Plastic is a highly valuable resource made from petroleum — the left over top layer that is densest after turning it into gasoline. It’s then heavily processed (think time and money) to turn it into polymers, then processed further for smell and color, then further for TYPE of polymer, then further into a product… it takes dozens of people and hundreds of dollars to even make a plastic spoon. It’s our earth’s irreplaceable resource, days of labor, tons of carbon emitted into our air, brain-power to make the product and our dollars to purchase it. It’s practically indestructible. It’s REusable!
Plastic is a valuable material made from expensive, irreplaceable natural resources and added time, effort, and money.
Using plastic for single-use temporary applications is like using gold or diamonds as gravel — not unheard-of but still wasteful and not the intended application. And somehow we’ve made it “normal” to throw it “away.” It is actually more valuable than glass — yet glass while causing sorting facilities to lose money have one of the highest recycling rates.
Plastic has its intended purpose — it’s indestructible, it’s flexible, and it’s light-weight. Existing materials should be captured and reused in such applications. I can see how plastic will exist for many more years in things like electronics, vehicles, construction etc. There is a place for it — it’s already on the planet, and we need to find the best way to repurpose it to serve us and the planet, rather than cause more harm.
Change the perception of recycling
Recycling does not have the elves that we generally tend to think. Proper recycling has a direct impact on the economy, infrastructure and even overall health of a community. The idea that recycling is a problem the government has to take care of — that is the underlying belief that hasn’t worked. Under this presumption, the recycling system is based on bids and contracts from municipalities, making the objective to get the lowest cost bid rather than the highest impact bid — municipalities by nature (at the moment) are most concerned about saving money. This is a reason why even in municipalities where recycling of a certain type of plastic might be available (i.e think again of #5 yogurt containers) because the cost and bid is cheaper to only cover #1 and #2 — only those items are made recyclable through curbside services.
We need to look into ways to twist this notion on its head where recycling is owned by the public regulated by the government and implemented by waste management companies. Through this model we can create opportunities and improve how technologies and processes provided by waste management experts are used and implemented. Public ownership — through stocks and markets, will enable to incentivize innovation, create jobs, industries, and solutions. Can you imagine that the recycling technologies haven’t seen any true innovations since the 60s and 70s? It’s truly insanity!
Invest in Collections & Sorting
A more effective and efficient collection system — Many technological improvements are possible for collections — replace the old garbage trucks with a hi-tech alternative that can compact and even in some cases shred recyclable materials and operate with lower emissions.
Germany has a 90% recycling rate since practically the 80s and they are working on getting the number to 100%. Many other European countries are also over 50–60% recycling rates. One way to start picking up the slack is just applying what they have done to the US. They definitely prioritize convenient return schemes and sorting of plastics. Sorting plastics is a given in cultures — it’s a sense of responsibility and ownership. Just as you wouldn’t leave a table without throwing away your junk in a public space (!) there are no elves picking that up and there are no elves sorting out the recycling — it costs all of us extra money.
Get rid of single-stream — that’s at best just gross and doesn’t work. A dubious term “single-stream” recycling is interpreted by the general public as meaning it also includes garbage and you can just throw anything in there — from your used kleenex to a refrigerator and some elves will take care of sorting them. The term in waste management is always used as referring to just and only recyclable materials. Actual waste always has a separate bin. Garbage — like that used kleenex — goes into it’s own bin for landfilling at best. Then recycling items are all collected in one stream — from paper to glass to plastic to aluminum and steel — throw all of that into one bin. The sorting facilities will sort all of those materials. Contamination means the contamination of any category with another one — so if you have plastic #1 that includes more than 5% of all other materials it yields that particular bale as being useless — buyers don’t want to buy it, without China in the picture now, it goes to landfill after costing us all that time, effort, and money.
Work towards a minimal standardization — To help with the multi-stream recycling and making the process more intuitive having a standard across regions or even the country is a big help. What’s recyclable, what color is which material type, which bin do they go into?
Invest in more private/entrepreneurial ventures — Another side for collections is also on either the privatization or the policies around it. Today’s hauling systems throwing everything into one truck and mixing during collections etc. are confusing to people and extremely costly to the material recovery facilities. Implementing a multi-stream collection system incentivized as in many European countries is less costly overall, and the regarded inconvenience easily addressed.
Invest in Innovative Recycling Technology
Build the capacities in every country to handle their waste — just as every city and town requires waste water treatment, telecom, and power plants and facilities — the same can be applied for plastics and waste. Each city and town needs to handle their own plastic “waste” by turning them into materials that are used in public improvement projects and other long-term products to benefit the growing populations. One possible approach would be for multiple players to collaborate and provide a scalable method in the west that can then be implemented in developing countries as well.
- Implement distributed recycling facilities able to handle all plastic types — distributed facilities, so that the cost is easily recovered through carbon and cost savings compared to sending them to a central location 2000 miles away.
- Recycle, not just sort, plastics 1 through 7 — China handled over 50% of the world’s plastics. This is just for recyclable plastics (#1, 2, 5). The other half was somewhere between landfill, loss to the environment and processed locally. Again, plastic is a valuable resource not meant for single-use.
- Invest in technologies that make it possible to recycle all materials — recycling technologies haven’t seen any ground-breaking innovations since the 70s. There are technologies that have been invented, just not implemented or scaled due to lack of funding. One such technology Newtecpoly (aka Plastech Australia) enables a mix of low-grade plastics (or high-quality for that matter), to be recycled with up to 30% contamination and turned into a highly durable plastic — most useful for long-term applications — docking, piers, roads, railings, piping, etc.
- Invest in Chemical Recycling — Though this is part of investing into technologies, chemical recycling also shows added benefit of creating “raw” plastic material from a mix of plastics or truly recycling the material into its original state. For instance, a new company Biocellection — is targeting to turn mainly film plastic into its original molecular form to be reused in place of petroleum in creating new plastic material. Recycling Technologies — based in England they can take PET plastics and turn them into an oil-like substance called “Plaxx” that can be used in making food-grade plastics. (Clarification once again — we’re not suggesting that recycling should enable the continued use of single use plastics, rather we suggest that today’s available technologies are used responsibly to recycle alternatives).
The target is to build high output low or zero emission true recycling facilities. Especially in the US, most places that we think are “recycling” facilities are actually sorting facilities, their multi-million dollar machines sorting the junk they receive from collections, due in big part to poor messaging and communication to the public mentioned above.
Invest in the use of recycled materials
A major challenge in the current recycling landscape is the availability of “buyers” for recycled materials. Partly due to the perception of recycled materials as well as the cost. When the closest facility is 2000 miles away it’s difficult to make sense of just even the transportation cost.
- Address the demand issue — when there is no demand for using recycled content the value of available recycled material is naturally low and it is regarded as a commodity. The problem though is even with no demand the value is not as low as what it costs for companies to produce and buy virgin plastics. In large part enabled by government and industry subsidies. Switch these subsidies to go into recycled plastics.
- Invest in innovative technologies that currently exist to use recycled plastics in various public improvement projects like roads, sidewalks, walls etc.
- Invest in developing countries — there are many smaller scale solutions that can apply and benefit developing countries quickly, reducing the amount of waste that is going into the waterways.
- Implement policies for minimial recycled content contracts — if all governments and businesses, especially developers, had a minimal recycled content requirement the market would boom. Imagine a project where all waste-water pipes in a high-rise, or all parking markers and dividers in closed garages are made of recycled plastics.
Invest in handling end of life
- Invest in zero-emission waste to energy plants — when a material comes to the end of its useful life — which is a part of an undeniable life-cycle, the materials need to be handled with zero emissions. As unlikely as it sounds, in a time where people are extracting carbon out of thin air and making products, turning materials into carbon-free energy is doable.
Invest in Metrics and Reporting
One issue is we currently are lacking meaningful analytics for recycled plastics. Once plastics are created and then sold it gets lots in the economy. Recycling (sorting) centers can track how much materials were brought to their location — though usually they are mixed materials, and difficult to identify by material type (paper, glass, plastic) let alone plastic type (1 through 7) or product (toys, bottles, etc.)
Recycling should be able to report how much of each product type was captured, recycled, down cycled, landfilled, or incinerated. Imagine being able to see how much of the toys sold in the US were actually captured and recycled? Or how much of the yogurt containers, or electronics. This kind of data would help stakeholders understand the key factors and where the actual material losses are continued to be observed. The reports should be available by geographical location and region at a minimum. Such reports do not exist today — and without measuring it is very difficult to understand impact and footprint.
We also need a way to track the amount of plastics diverted from the world’s Ocean. Each effort that we implement has an impact, one way or another, and incorporating measurement systems from the beginning simplifies reporting at every step. With the systems that are currently in place it is a very manual approach to get the weight landfilled, recycled and incinerated and then compare them month-over-month. By using AI and blockchain technologies, we can automatically measure and report the weight from each center — even every bin. It is through the metrics and reporting that we’re going to gain insights into what’s working, what needs more focus, and what needs improvement.
Metrics and reporting also enable transparency and open communication. This is especially important to gain public trust and maintain operational integrity as well as brand awareness. Imagine companies who would report how much plastic they’ve avoided, produced, captured, recycled, lost…
This list is intended to get experts and players in the field to think about recycling differently and not meant to be an inclusive list by any means. The opportunities and possibilities are practically endless. What are some ways you think the future of plastic recycling can be improved, especially in the West?
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