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

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

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

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 has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Single-use plastics have become the de-facto “solution” for businesses of all kinds, as they attempt to package their products in ways that consumers feel “safe” purchasing. And the current explosion in “popularity” of this type of packaging has further highlighted the issues plaguing our recycling system.

In the United States, many communities rely on curbside recycling systems as the primary method of recycling. 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. 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 then must be re-sorted. This is just one example and the recycling system is filled with these types of frustrating inefficiencies.

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 that is 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 to be 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 put it, “it’s really a complete myth when people say that we’re recycling our plastics.”

Another issue with our recycling system is that globally, recycling has largely operated in a similar way to any other market-driven enterprise. For years, China was the world’s largest purchaser of recycled materials. In 2018, however, the Chinese government aggressively changed its policies regarding the purchase of 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.

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. Each nation at one time threw their hat into the ring to become the primary purchaser of excess recyclables at various times after China backed out. These countries quickly recognized the subsequent public health crisis that was created because they had nothing to do with most of the waste they were purchasing. And instead of being repurposed, much of this waste is burned in landfills or dumped in waterways. As a result, many of these waste “mis-managers” have either banned the practice of purchasing excess waste outright or at the very least have begun turning away would-be sellers.

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

Beyond having a negative impact on the environment, the inefficiencies of our recycling and waste management systems also have a disproportionately negative impact on 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, there have been numerous studies examining 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.

Sana Packaging was created because we recognize 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 all over the world. This is precisely why we are striving towards 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 that is geared towards helping both people and the environment rather than generating profits.

Written by: Galen Kuney, Sana Packaging Intern