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.
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.
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:
So where does this leave us? Reduce and reuse. The assumption that only recycling allows for economic growth is wrong. To move to reuse, communities need new reuse businesses and systems who cannot be outsourced. And we all win with reduce and reuse because of reductions in plastic 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.