How Do We Get People to Recycle Their Packaging Materials More in the US?

Simple question, but very complex answer. What’s your least favorite thing to do? If we made it easier for you to do it and even made it so you liked doing it, wouldn’t you do it?

The same kind of problem exists with recycling packaging materials of any product we buy. Let’s face it, once we open the box for our new digital TV or finish the cereals, a lot of Americans toss it in the trash. And how about the water bottle when we’re finished? If there isn’t a recycle bin nearby, especially if we are out and about, it goes in the nearest trash can or rolls around on our car floor.

Let’s break the problem down first. There is no one critical area that will increase recycling rates in and of itself:

  1. Recycling is based on volunteers
  2. Volume of some recyclable materials aren’t cost effective for the recycler to collect or sort
  3. Government isn’t consistent at a federal level

Recycling Based on Volunteers

In this country, recycling is based on volunteers in one form or another to separate recyclables from the solid waste stream. The volunteers come in the persona of you as individuals or corporations/industries making the effort to put it into the right bin and government mandates. There is no penalty in most cases for putting recycling into a waste receptacle on either the thrower or the collector.

At home or in the office, a lot of us do recycle, if given the opportunity. The bigger problem is when you are in public areas (parks, stadiums, theaters, beaches, shopping centers, gas stations, etc.). Some places provide the opportunity, but even there, you often see people who would readily recycle at home, throw out recyclables in less familiar places. The recycling and waste hauling industries need to find ways to resolve this problem.

Volume of Some Recyclable Materials Aren’t Cost Effective for the Recycler to Collect or Sort

All plastics (or for that matter, paper, metal or glass) are not the same. Different grades, even within the same material categories may not provide enough volume to be economically recycled. The grades are important to efficiently bring them back into the production stream at the best level of quality and to isolate contamination, e.g., bio plastics.

Despite more recycling taking place voluntarily, the choices of how to separate has grown too. There have been many successes over the past 20 years, but there have been many forgotten materials, as well. There will probably be some consolidation of grades within families of materials, out of necessity. This runs counter to our past problem solving techniques in package development … of inventing new things or new materials to solve packaging problems.

Government Isn’t Consistent At a Federal Level

The third issue is governmental involvement. Governmental initiatives can provide a “shot in the arm” to get recycling programs running through new legislation, but individual state requirements can cause confusion and conflicting requirements, if industry doesn’t actively involve itself in legislative monitoring.

So, What Do We Do About It?

A few recommendations we’d like to see:

  • Find new solutions that make recycling easy, wherever you are, not just at home.
  • Institute “pay as you throw” programs that charge for solid waste that will be landfilled and charge nothing for recyclables (or compostables should the infrastructure exist).
  • Expand incentives programs, such as Recycle Bank, that reward recycling with points that can be redeemed to buy products.
  • Consolidate some grades of materials (not families of materials – we are not advocates of material switching to meet recycling requirements) so that recycled materials can meet more demanding applications like packaging and reduce “downcycling”.

With these types of practices or programs in place, maybe our grandchildren will wonder why anybody would not do it, just like we put our seatbelts on every time in the car, as second nature.

We welcome any other topics you wish to see or your comments on our posts.

Need more information? Envision Plastics Vice President, Tamsin Ettefagh will be happy to discuss your comments or concerns in greater depth. Contact her at 336/342-4749 Ext 225.