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Recycling, an opportunity.

From listening to the podcast by planet money on NPR public radio on recycling issues, we decided to formulate this response. We want to do all we can to increase your knowledge on the subject of recycling as you, the consumer, are a crucial stakeholder in the process. 

One of the most significant issues in the world of recycling is the fact that, due to an evolving Chinese economy, China no longer wants to be the worlds recycler. For over 30 years china had accepted up to 50% of the world’s recyclables, such as cardboard boxes and water bottles, primarily for down-cycling. Down-cycling involves turning these recyclables into their component items, usually for use in less sophisticated products, for example turning water bottles into polyester socks. Now, due to China’s national sword act, they will no longer be accepting these materials in the condition they did previously. This act, in many cases, has led to a considerable over-supply of recyclables being built up within US material reclamation facilities. The resulting issue is that this material is often sent to landfill by these facilities due to the lower economic costs of landfilling over recycling. However, this should not be the end of recycling. Every problem presents an even greater opportunity, especially in the case of recycling. 

Previously, these recyclables were being sent halfway around the world in huge shipping containers via a myriad of transportation means. This degree of transportation was not without its substantial economic and environmental costs, primarily due to the high level of fuel consumption required. Furthermore, the recyclables would mostly be down-cycled, turning them into products often with a limited lifespan in a format that was not easy to recycle again — an overall relatively inefficient process from both a cost and environmental standpoint. However, we have the ability to make a change. 

Through innovative recycling processes such as that of rPlanet Earth’s, US recyclers and manufacturers can change the status quo on recycling. Recycling has the power to not only be profitable but be environmentally sustainable by preventing a leak of valuable and un-compostable/non-biodegradable material into the environment. This power must first start at the consumer. Already it has been seen that through the power of consumer preference for environmentally sustainable goods, large corporations such as Nestle, Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Unilever have made sustainability goals in terms of the amount of recycled content in their products. These commitments present a demand opportunity for recyclers inside of the US to provide these recycled materials. With some increased investment from both private entities (based upon the profit motive) and government bodies (based upon the enhanced marginal social benefit) into domestically based recycling schemes, US recyclers will have the ability to improve both their capacity and recycling efficiency. This investment will both create an economic benefit for the economy from the resulting US jobs created in the recycling sector as well as the environmental benefit of significantly reduced transportation pollution.

Furthermore, increased efficiency of recycling will allow any oversupply of recyclables to meet the quality requirements of the national sword act. Therefore meaning they will not be landfilled or burnt if in too high of supply, but instead, be accepted by Chinese recyclers. An increase in legislation around recycling will also help the cause by preventing illegal dumping (the main contributor to the great pacific garbage patch) and improving recycling standards, furthering the motive for enhanced efficiency. 

However, the task of recycling shouldn’t only be left up to the government and municipalities but also the consumer and private industry. With the emergence of innovative recycling and remanufacturing processes such as those done here at rPlanet Earth, we have taken the first step to close the loop on plastic waste. We recycle post-consumer PET packaging containers (bottles and thermoforms) back into high-quality recycled packaging, avoiding the inevitable limited lifespan of downcycling while maintaining a lower carbon footprint and water usage. If done nationally on a local level, this would enable us all to be an example of how to solve the problems presented in this podcast. Together we can change the world and the way we handle our waste for the better.