With so much focus on the recycling crisis, we tend to overlook the root cause of the problem: the glut of short-lived consumer products and packaging. Rather than looking for new places to dispose, it is imperative that we look at where it is coming from, and stem the flow. Mining, harvesting, processing and transport are where the biggest environmental footprints land.
In the current system, manufacturers who profit from the sale of their wares have little incentive to make durable products or minimal, easily recycled packaging, or to incorporate recycled feedstock in their packaging. Thankfully, a few corporations such as Unilever and Procter & Gamble are stepping up. Many more need a nudge to follow suit.
Neither are consumers incentivized to reduce their use and disposal of unnecessary “stuff.” The proliferation of convenient single-use products and non-recyclable packaging is clogging our waterways, contaminating our recycling plants and filling our landfills.
Add to that the diminishing disposal capacity in Massachusetts, as most of our remaining landfills face closure within the decade. We are facing a day when the massive amount of stuff that we blithely buy, use once and toss will have no place to go.
Then there is the phenomenon of “wishful recycling.” This may be the result of consumers who pay for their trash by the bag avoiding the fee, or genuinely desiring to recycle as much as they can (I admit to some past infractions myself). In my experience, though, most are just confused about which of the plethora of products and packaging can be effectively recycled. Items such as takeout coffee cups and cardboard with plastic overwrap are clearly hurting our recycling industry’s ability to effectively sort, and they are a factor in China’s embargo on our recyclables.
Producers are selling us millions of tons of products for billions of dollars. Most will be disposed within six months. Packaging, alone, accounts for about 30 percent of our waste and about 60 percent of our recycling stream.
Once products and packaging leave the warehouse, most producers are free of responsibility for what happens to them. A few exceptions are carbonated beverages that are redeemed for deposit, and rechargeable batteries and mercury thermostats that are recycled through manufacturer-sponsored programs. These are good examples of product stewardship. Municipalities, haulers and recycling processors are left holding the plastic bag, dressing-coated takeout container, plastic-lined paper cup, and glass bottle that currently has no local recycling market.
It’s time for that to change. We need the packaging industry to partner with those of us who manage their discards to help solve this massive problem.
There is a bill in the Massachusetts House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee, H447, An Act Reducing Packaging Waste in the Commonwealth, that assigns a fee to packaging sold in Massachusetts. The fee is based on the product’s recyclability, recycled content, and cost to manage at end of life. It provides an incentive for more lean and thoughtful packaging design, and to create domestic markets for our recyclables. The proceeds provide funding for improved recycling infrastructure development, municipal solid waste relief and public enlightenment.
With help from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, the South Shore Recycling Cooperative and many municipalities are working hard to adjust the habits of our residents, an uphill climb. Recycling companies are struggling to navigate this massive market contraction, and they are wondering if they can continue to operate until viable domestic outlets are established. Municipal recycling costs are skyrocketing, straining budgets with no clear end in sight.
With help from the consumer product manufacturers that helped to create this crisis, it will be possible to resurrect and revitalize our recycling industry, create domestic markets for its products, and make our disposal system more sustainable.
Claire Galkowski is executive director of the South Shore Recycling Cooperative, based in Westwood, Mass.
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