By Sameer Joshi, PhD
Pic courtesy WWF
Delterra, a nonprofit organization that is focused on recycling, was founded earlier in 2020 with the support of global consultancy McKinsey & Co. Delterra traces its origins in part to the Rethinking Recycling initiative launched in 2018 by McKinsey-affiliated foundation McKinsey.org.
As its mission, Delterra says it is intended to “focus on the world’s most complex systemic environmental challenges, where incentives, information, and infrastructure are misaligned, making them appear too hard, too complex, or too costly to fix.” Building rapidly scalable, self-sustaining waste management and recycling ecosystems, that redirect waste into productive use while improving people’s lives.
The nonprofit group (NGO) adds, “Today, we are reimagining and redesigning the recycling systems in Argentina and Indonesia. Over the next few years, we plan to scale our operations to other countries struggling with the growing waste crises across Asia, Latin America, and Africa.”
There are many such efforts out there and they are doing good work on developing standards around packaging design, but more is definitely needed. On the recycling front, one needs to work toward two goals: 1) simplifying the materials in packaging, and 2) signaling to the consumer what is recyclable more clearly and consistently.
Simplifying packaging refers to design principles like avoiding mixing different materials or switching to more easily recycled materials. One of the offenders we hear a lot about is “sachets.” These are packaging like those single-serve condiment packages you get at fast-food restaurants. Often those have one type of plastic on the outside, a layer of metal in the middle, and a different type of plastic on the inside.
Likely unknown to consumers, but something we should all be aware of: that method of construction makes them completely non-recyclable. Some packaging manufacturers are looking at how to make them out of one type of plastic that would at least make them technically recyclable if you can get people to collect them—an important challenge for another time.
There are also a number of materials that even if they could technically be recycled, rarely if ever are, often due to cost or distance from the right recycling facilities. Packaging designers could choose to use easily recycled materials when designing packaging to help ensure the packaging is actually recycled.
Signaling more clearly to the consumer what is recyclable is the other issue. Take that disposable cup from your favorite coffee place, for example. Most people are completely confused about what part can be recycled, does it need to be washed first, do you need to take it apart before you recycle it?
Demystifying recycling for consumers would really help ensure the wrong stuff doesn’t end up in the bin. This might sound like a small issue but, in fact, one of the big challenges we face is “wishful recycling,” or when people put things in the recycling bin that cannot be recycled and which may even contaminate other materials or clog up machinery in the recycling plant, e.g., plastic bags.
A growing number of companies are experimenting with how to tell the consumer what to do with the product, e.g., if this paper bag is greasy, it can be composted, if not, it can be recycled. Clear and consistent messaging could play a big role in making recycling initiatives more successful. Of course, recycling alone cannot eliminate waste. We need to redesign, reduce, reuse and recycle. But simplifying packaging and messaging around recycling will help reduce waste and increase the amount of material recycled.
A lot of people think that the little triangle of chasing arrows with a number in it on the bottom of plastic containers means that the product can be recycled. That is not exactly true. The number indicates what kind of plastic resin the product is made from and has nothing to do with recyclability. In fact, plastic No. 7 for example is simply “other” i.e., all plastics not listed in 1-6, and packaging with that number on it is often not collected or recycled by municipalities.
The amount of confusion the chasing arrows triangle symbol continues to cause seems to me to be a strong argument to move to a different icon to indicate the kind of plastic, and possibly to add an additional symbol to indicate recyclability.
The good news is that a few standardized labeling systems already exist. A good example is How2Recycle, which has developed different icons indicating recyclability, for example: “Widely Recycled,” “Check Locally,” “Not Yet Recycled” or “Store Drop-Off.” This type of messaging would help more than asking consumers to figure out what the numbers on the bottom of a bottle mean. However, standards such as these are yet to be widely adopted by the packaging industry and would need to be consistently used to be able to drive any real change.
The bottom line on this is one has to factor in consumer knowledge in executing recycling programs–and the arrows are a good example of just how hard that can be.
Nations should be looking at how to build a more circular economy that consumes fewer raw materials, less energy, and less water. But that set of priorities must always be balanced by the realities of their citizens, especially those living in poverty and other difficult situations. Government-mandated phase-out of specific single-use packaging should not come without viable alternatives to meet both consumer needs as well as environmental goals. Fortunately, such alternatives do exist, and more are becoming available as packaging manufacturers experiment with new ways to make packaging simpler and thus more recyclable.
It really is a call to action on the need for scale. Corporations shouldn’t just fund another demonstration project, but should instead put their efforts, expertise and funding into figuring out how to scale what works. There are wonderful demonstration projects all over the world, many of them funded by consumer goods companies and others developed by startups or community groups. The challenge is how to scale these projects so that they have the kind of impact we need to see to make real change happen.
One needs to look across the full recycling ecosystem to understand what is preventing it from working and rethinking those challenges, too, so that one can improve the productivity of the whole value chain.
One knows that many companies are worried about human rights abuses in the recycling value chain. That means we need to create transparency and accountability across the value chain before we can unlock demand at scale from those companies.
Companies are taking a systematic approach to dramatically improve the recovery of recyclable material, and the commitment to purchase and use recycled material at a fair price. That combines changing consumer recycling behavior, improving waste collection and sorting operations, and supply chain traceability for recycled content. We seek promising results that build on the strengths of informal recycling efforts while improving working conditions. The NGO is now focusing on scaling what works faster and with fewer resources. Today they are operating in Indonesia and Argentina and looking at taking these programs across Asia, South America, and Africa.
Other promising models are those that reuse and refill packaging, such as Siklus and Algramo, which also deliver cost savings to low and middle-income consumers. (Equivalents in higher-income settings also exist, such as Loop in the United States). Algramo was founded in Chile nearly a decade ago, but now similar projects are underway in Jakarta [Indonesia], New York, Mexico, and investment-worthy models are those that are repeatable and can drive impact at scale.
(References – Recycling Today, Delterra.org, IHS MARKIT)