By Jack Buffington, Ph.D
You’ve probably heard a thousand times how important it is to apply the “3 R’s” of reduce, reuse, and recycle to lighten your footprint to the environment. We should aspire to consume responsibly, but how effective are these principles in practice? Not as effective as you may believe, despite the alleged science behind recycling. In this article I will present ten things you should know about recycling and why its practices are based upon “junk science”:
1. Aluminum is 100% recyclable, 89% reusable, but is recycled at less than 60%. Due to its material structure, aluminum is the highest of reusable materials for packaging, much higher than plastic and glass. Not only is recycled aluminum highly desirable for can to can reuse, it is easily and efficiently able to be upcycled for other uses in the fields of transportation and building. Yet despite its desirable state, aluminum cans are recycled at less than a 60% rate, despite its market demand, a fault of the recycling system. Every day, millions of aluminum cans are landfilled, despite being the only packaging material that is both economical and environmentally friendly to recycle.
2. Glass packaging can be highly reusable, but is not always efficient to do so. In some cultures, glass packaging is considered the most efficient packaging material because it can be reused up to twenty times before it needs to be reformed. Returnable glass may appear to be the most environmentally friendly container, but not after considering all factors, such as higher fuel costs to ship, energy costs for sterilization, and water use in the process. When all variables are considered, there are mixed opinions from research literature regarding its environmental friendliness. Single use bottles are also heavy to ship, and are only crushed and reused into a new bottle at around a 15% rate due to material science and supply chain economics. When all supply chain factors are considered, multi-use and single use glass containers are not highly reusable.
3. Plastic bottles are recyclable/environmental only from a conceptual point of view. The plastics industry can make a case for reusing plastic bottles at higher rates than present state, but there is scant evidence to support this from a science and economics perspective. Conventional plastic is formed through the use of fossil fuels, which means it’s not a renewable feedstock. Recycled plastic can be used to form a new plastic bottle, but only practical at lower reuse rates, and cannot be reused, bottle to bottle over and over again, as is the case with an aluminum can. Plastic bottles are recycled, bottle to bottle, at a low rate (perhaps up to 15% in practicality), and its disposal is detrimental to the environment due to the leeching of plastic that impacts the environment and safety of animals; there are also concerns whether it is safe for humans, having potential to disrupt endocrine activity. Plastic bottles may be very convenient for consumers, but it is not an environmentally friendly material for use.
4. Bio-Plastic is not (much) more environmental than conventional plastic. Bio-Plastics such as corn and bacteria are advertised as more environmentally friendly than conventional plastic because it has origins from renewable feed stocks, however, these materials have not been found to be any more reusable. There is also an ethical concern in using food products for packaging when there is so much hunger in the world. Developing numerous variations of bio-materials adds complexity to an already inefficient recycling industry in order to sort through many different streams of materials. Beyond being a renewable feedstock, a bio-polymer is still produced as if it were a conventional plastic that is highly resistant to nature, and therefore, difficult to reuse. There are a lot of bad scientific assumptions of how a bottle grown from the soil is green, despite perceptions.
5. Perhaps up to a third of all packaging materials aren’t even attempted to be recycled. Recycling programs are typically focused on conventional packaging materials such as cans and bottles, but there are so many other containers that aren’t considered and factored into recycling/reuse rates. Take-out coffee cups, convenience store and restaurant ‘to go’ cups, Keurig coffee pods, and sippy pouches are just a few of these hybrids that are outside of the recycling rules and regulations. According to my analysis, these packages can be up to a third of the total packaging use, have a zero percent recycling rate, and is not a focus of most, if not all, recycling programs, leading to a problem not factored into the numbers.
6. Zero waste nations of Sweden and Germany do a better job of mitigation, but no better in solving the problem. Recycling proponents often point to the success story of what’s happening in those self-professed zero waste nations, but their success is in landfill waste mitigation rather than true 3R’s, like exists in nature. I know this to be the case because I completed my Ph.D. research in Sweden, one of the most environmental friendly nations on earth. The difference between the U.S. and Sweden is not in the material composition and reuse of its packaging materials, but rather in the residual materials in the U.S. being landfilled while in Sweden, these materials are incinerated for electricity that counts as reuse. In reality, packaging waste from Sweden and the U.S. are similar problems, given that most of our packaging was never designed for recycling.
7. Recycling as a concept isn’t ‘bad science’, but today’s application of it is so. Manmade recycling efforts are often compared to Nature’s process of reduce, reuse, recycle, but there’s a very important difference: Nature’s materials evolved to be recycled within an ecosystem whereas commercial packaging were to resist nature’s impact. Then, after the fact, recycling programs were developed to address the environmental impact of our consumption. Therefore, the concept of recycling, designed after nature, is correct; it’s just the implementation of it in our industrial world that is junk science.
Jack Buffington, Ph.D. is a business leader at MillerCoors, the second largest beer manufacturer in the U.S., and a post-doctoral researcher in supply chain/biotechnology at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden. He is also the author of the book, “The Recycling Myth: Disruptive Innovation to Improve the Environment.”
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