That's right, we should recycle less. Recycling is popular for its convenience, taking pressure off weekly household rubbish limits (carrot and stick) as well as for its feel-good factor.
Our mostly mixed household recycling compromises the quality of the final product, meaning that its resale value is reduced. Paper and card in particular is vulnerable to damage from broken glass and food residue. Some of the countries to which we used to export, such as China and Turkey, have become fed up with receiving a low quality product, effectively amounting to waste. In some cases countries have taken the cash for recycling without any real plan for its conversion, so it ends up in landfill or strewn around the countryside.
There has been a shift from sending our own recycled packaging abroad to processing it in the UK, which is a very good thing, as it doesn't accrue lots of additional carbon miles by sending it on a boat ride to the other side of the world. What is not so good is the way waste is processed in the UK. Often Recycling processing happens on the same site as W2E (Waste to Energy) processing, incineration to you and me, but, now that you can recover some of the energy as heat and electricity, incineration is not considered the bogeyman it once was. There is evidence, however, that the lines can get blurred as to what is classed waste and what is recycling with conveniently few controls over what ends up being incinerated, so what you thought was going to be recycled may simply go up in smoke, but, hey, it's making energy, so that's OK too isn't it?
And just because manufacturers make stuff out of recyclable materials it doesn't mean they are recyclable in real-life. A great deal of packaging is still not worth recycling. Things like bottle tops, lids, small pots, film seals, sachets, pouches and trigger mechanisms are usually sent to landfill at the moment because they are impractical to sort and process.
So whilst recycling is a clearly good thing, because it keeps a lot of packaging out of landfill, it still has an impact on the environment from transportation and reprocessing. Wouldn't it be better if we didn't do so much of it? And what's the alternative?
Reuse for one. If you can simply refill and reuse the same packaging you are taking a new pack out of the equation every time you refill.
Reuse has never really taken off for several reasons. The success of recycling is one of them, also it’s convenience. There is no real requirement for the consumer to change their behaviour other than to rinse their packaging out and put it into a different bin. No agonising over lifestyle or buying local products, even seeking out products with less packaging. Just put it in the recycling bin to “Save the Planet”. The recycling bin has become a Get Out of Jail free card for the packaging industry.
Reuse systems, of which there are many, tend to be labour intensive, demanding a high degree of buy-in and inconvenience for both consumer and retailer with little reward. Usually they involve the customer returning bulky packaging for refilling, which is inconvenient, frustrating and time consuming. Some high end systems tackle this with home delivery and collection of selected premium products. So you can have your cake and eat it (and return the packaging) as long as you pay for the privilege, but there are more than a few questions to be asked about how environmentally friendly this kind of service really is.
The answer to widespread Reuse lies in convenience, engagement and practicality for the consumer and profit for the retailer, which of course is easier said than done, but we already know that expecting the customer to struggle back to the store laden with empty bottles is just not going to work for anyone but the most committed.
Reuse is a huge challenge that is not going to be solved one pack at a time. There needs to be a systematic joined-up approach with investment by retailers and government. It may well mean that packaging becomes more uniform with more emphasis on pack graphics and messaging, but that is a small price to pay for reducing the amount of raw materials we burn and bury.
If our thoughts excite you, get in touch with Laurel and Stephen at firstname.lastname@example.org