Recycling and Compostables are NOT the Answer

For the past  50 years, we’ve put our throw-away problems solely on the shoulders of recycling. We’ve not scratched the surface of the other two R’s: reduce and reuse.

Perhaps this happened because industry knew that recycling the ever-increasing stuff that is sold to us and that we willingly buy, meant the system wouldn’t need to change. Industry could keep churning out more stuff and we would keep buying. Or maybe recycling is just easier than reducing and reusing. That is doubtful, though, because both recycling and reuse require behavior change and systems development. Reduce and reuse, lessen the amount of stuff being made and the carbon, chemicals and water used to make them so there were obvious economic incentives for those making toxic chemicals and single-use to focus on recycling only.

The Crimson Permanent Assurance's mutiny against the Captains of Industry.

Over the past 50 years, the U.S. plastic recycling rate has stagnated at below 10% while the production of plastics skyrocketed. And that was before China’s Sword Policy which shut the door to our cheap plastics. Plus, the plastics industry is predicting a 400% increase in production by 2050, representing 20% of all petroleum use.

Plastic Generation and Recovery in the United States from 1960 - 2012. Source: U.S. EPA.

At the same time, we’re learning that all of this throw-away stuff has wreaked havoc on our environment and is contributing to climate change. Right now the spotlight is on plastic pollution, given the nauseating photos and videos of whales, turtles, seabirds and beaches we have seen - and continue to see - plus the lesser known and lesser understood impacts on our health from microplastics.

Because of demands for action, the captains of industry are feeling pressure. There is some good news and innovative reuse ideas coming out of businesses, large and small like Loop. But in many cases single-use plastic is being replaced by more single-use stuff. Unfortunately that doesn’t help us much, especially on the climate change front. Here’s a rundown of the most common single-use replacements and the problems with them:

Fiber-ware:

  • the best alternative to date, but still filled with poly and per fluorinated substances (PFAS) and
  • uses trees, energy and water to make so not a good solution with our growing population

Bioplastic:

  • doesn’t actually bio-degrade,
  • acts just like petroleum-based plastic in the environment, and
  • often uses more energy (carbon) and water than plastic.

Compostable packaging:

  • uses more energy (carbon) and more water,
  • toxic (teflon-type) coating,
  • leaches PFAS from containers into compost*,
  • increases costs, lessens value of compost, prohibits selling to organic farmers, and doesn't always compost**,
  • requires costly commercial composting infrastructure that many communities do not have,
  • releases higher emissions when landfilled, and
  • made from agricultural products with a high life cycle***.

So where does this leave us? Reduce and reuse. The assumption that only recycling allows for economic growth is incorrect. To move to reuse, communities need new reuse businesses and systems that cannot be outsourced. This means new businesses and local jobs. Businesses moving to reuse save money.**** Cities and towns save money when they reduce plastic pollution clean-up, waste hauling and municipal water contamination***** costs. Communities win from less pollution, carbon, toxic chemicals and water usage.

As we move away from single-use, we recognize that some reuse products will have to be made of plastic given its valuable properties. So let’s focus product and material development durable, reusable plastic with low to no toxic chemicals rather than more single-use packaging.

Think of the possibilities. We can do this and we will. In fact, some are already doing this. Listen to our podcast, Indisposable, to learn about folks, communities and businesses leading the way on reusable. And join us in co-creating this future with us. There’s a better way than throw-away.

*Compostable Food Containers Could Release PFAS Into the Environment - https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2019-05/acs-cfc052419.php#
**A Message from Composters Serving Oregon - https://drive.google.com/file/d/1MIP-jHo9gfsUEYMfMgnIU4UnityBv92T/view?ts=5cc37719
***The Significance of Environmental Attributes as Indicators of the Life Cycle Environmental Impacts of Packaging and Food Service Ware - https://www.oregon.gov/deq/FilterDocs/MaterialAttributes.pdf
****Reuse Wins Every Time - https://www.upstreamsolutions.org/articles/reusewins
*****Plastic Fibres Found in Tap Water Around the World - https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/sep/06/plastic-fibres-found-tap-water-around-world-study-reveals