Social and Environmental Justice: Recycling and Waste Management (2/4)

At Sana Packaging, we have long believed that the recycling and waste management system...

Recycling and Waste Management

At Sana Packaging, we have long believed that the recycling and waste management systems in the United States are broken due to inefficiencies in collection and sorting programs and the market-driven nature of the systems themselves.

This has become a serious issue with the rise of single-use plastics across all packaging verticals, a trend that the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated. Single-use plastics have become the de-facto “solution” for businesses of all kinds as they attempt to package their products in ways consumers feel safe purchasing. The current explosion in popularity of this type of packaging has further highlighted the issues plaguing our recycling system.

Curbside Recycling: Widespread and Ineffective

In the United States, many communities rely on curbside recycling systems as the primary recycling method. However, these programs are so inefficient that the overarching system has become largely ineffective. Many community recycling programs result in municipalities losing money over time, and many communities either never had a program or are doing away with their programs altogether.

The Drawbacks of Single Stream Collection Programs

One of the main reasons these systems are so ineffective is because curbside recycling programs are traditionally “single-stream” collection programs. In these programs, recycled materials are mixed upon pickup. As a result, even the best efforts to separate and sort recycled materials often prove fruitless; the mixed materials are transported to a sorting facility, where they must be re-sorted. The recycling system is filled with these types of frustrating inefficiencies.

Lack of Action from Recycling Companies

Another unfortunate truth about our recycling system is that many domestic plastics recyclers know how inefficient the collection process is and simply don’t want to deal with dirty plastic and the secondary sorting required to repurpose these materials in a useful way.

As a result, many recyclable materials are sent straight to landfill. Thus, a large portion of what the average person puts in a recycling bin - which many people consider their primary act of environmental activism - doesn’t actually get recycled at all.

As Jim Puckett, the executive director of Seattle-based Basel Action Network, aptly says, “It’s really a complete myth when people say that we’re recycling our plastics.”

Recycling Shouldn't be Market-Driven

Another issue with our recycling system is that globally, recycling has largely operated in a similar way to any other market-driven enterprise.

Where Do Recycled Materials Go?

For years, China was the world’s largest purchaser of recycled materials. In 2018, however, the Chinese government aggressively changed its policies regarding purchasing recycled materials. Prices plummeted, and the market largely collapsed. The world’s leading waste producers, including the United States, searched for anyone who would take their waste.

Developing countries are frequent choices, and in their pursuit of the almighty dollar, waste producers are willing to ignore the fact that these countries have less capacity to manage our excess waste than we do here at home.

Exporting Recycled Materials Harms Everyone

It has become a kind of perverse auction, where the “winner” is actually the ultimate loser. Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Malaysia are all examples of this “winner-turned-loser” phenomenon. After China backed out, each nation threw its hat into the ring to become the primary purchaser of excess recyclables.

These countries quickly recognized the subsequent public health crisis stemming from their inability to process most of the purchased waste. Instead of being repurposed, much of this waste is burned in landfills or dumped in waterways. As a result, many of these waste mismanagers have banned purchasing excess waste outright or have begun turning away would-be sellers.

Exporting Recyclables: A Bad Solution from the Start

There is also good reason to question whether the idea of transporting waste overseas to be recycled in the hopes of reducing carbon emissions made sense in the first place.

The Recycling Process

Recycled materials must be collected, washed, broken down, and repurposed into new products. Thus, the collection process itself has a significant negative environmental impact, which is only made worse when we ship materials across the world.

The Social Cost of America's Broken Recycling System

Beyond harming the environment, the inefficiencies of our recycling and waste management systems also disproportionately negatively impact low-income communities in the United States and globally.

Researchers have noticed an alarming pattern regarding where landfills and other waste management facilities are built. In the United States, numerous studies have examined the relationship between the locations of landfills and low-income communities. One such study, conducted by the University of Michigan in 2016, determined that low-income and at-risk communities are disproportionately targeted by industries when deciding where to locate waste management sites. Although there are some “chicken-or-the-egg” debates about the causal relationship between low-income communities and waste management locations, it’s definitively not a random coincidence that this has occurred.

Seeking Innovative Solutions to the Broken Recycling System

Sana Packaging was created because we recognized that recycling and waste management systems are not working. Our system for dealing with excess waste should never have been driven by profit margins and exploitation. Yet the machine keeps churning out excess waste even if there is nowhere for it to go. This is having significant negative impacts on the environment and at-risk communities worldwide.

The inefficiency of the global recycling landscape is precisely why we strive toward circularity as a more effective way of dealing with the problem. We hope to be a part of the solution by participating in the creation of this new circular economic model geared toward helping both people and the environment rather than generating profits.

Contact us if you’re ready to discover the real impact your packaging has on the environment and if you’re ready to build a long-term relationship with a cannabis packaging supplier you can trust. It all starts with a conversation! 

Written by Galen Kuney