We like to think that as a society we are taking action on climate change and pollution. Most of us have some form of recycling operation in our everyday lives, whether that's using products made from recycled materials or sorting our own waste. However, once the rubbish we create leaves our homes and offices, there is actually surprisingly little done within our own countries, with much of it being transported to places like China and India to be recycled or repurposed.
The merits of this are questionable given that, firstly, the packaging is often originally made in many of these countries, then shipped around the world, then shipped back when it's been used. This is a huge waste of resources and easily doubles or even triples the environmental damage of this rubbish. However, this may soon be a thing of the past thanks to a decision by the Chinese government to stop importing trash as it has done for years.
China has had a fantastic model for many years, with the single biggest export from the US and UK to the country being their trash, which was then recycled and often made into the packaging for the products it sends back, which would then be sent back and recycled again. All of this movement was being paid for by the US and UK, so China created a strong recycling infrastructure, which helped them grow their economy whilst the US and UK invested comparatively lightly in the same infrastructures and instead paid to send their trash elsewhere.
With this stopping, the US and the rest of the world have a big problem - they have so much stuff to recycle but lack the infrastructure to recycle it all.
This is clearly an issue. 50 billion plastic water bottles are used in the US alone every year and of these only 23% are currently recycled. Americans are essentially leaving over $1 billion worth of plastic polluting the ground, which will get even worse once China's ban comes in. This is clearly a big issue as the environmental damage that plastics can do are well documented and, with millions of tons of waste being created every year, developed countries need to quickly find a way of dealing with it. It is a problem, but it’s one that leaves the door open for innovators to prosper.
The creation of recyclable waste is something that seems to be completely ingrained in our society, with the average person creating 2kg of waste per day, which equates to over 3/4 of a tonne every year. Breaking this kind of habit is not easy, but there have been innovative ideas that have changed this kind of behavior in various places across the world.
A prime example of this is in the UK, where a simple but innovative idea saw the use of plastic bags plummet by 83% in 12 months. This was to charge 5p (7 cents) per bag that the customer took, it is a tiny fee that everybody could afford, but because they needed to ask for the bag and pay a fee for it, it became less of a necessity and the use of reusable bags increased dramatically, saving approximately 6.36 billion plastic bags over the course of one year.
Similarly, some have had the innovative idea of bottle deposit schemes, which have become popular in several countries across the world. The idea is that people take bottles back to a shop or a designated point, at which point a nominal amount (that was added to the initial purchase price) is given back. This has had a significant impact in the countries who have adopted it, with Germany and Denmark both seeing 90% of all plastic bottle recycled, compared to a pitiful 23% of bottles in the US.
Recycling is a great thing, but there is an argument that it is ultimately pointless. According to a concept created by William McDonough and Michael Braungart, recycling simply takes a product designed for one purpose, then makes it useful for a slightly less useful purpose, then it's recycled again, until it eventually ends up being thrown away anyway. Rather than saving the environment, it still destroys the environment, but it just takes longer.
Instead, products need to be created to be reused and repaired if they break. For instance, a glass milk bottle that is returned, cleaned, then refilled or a phone where the individual elements can be replaced rather than needing to replace the entire phone once one element breaks. Taking this approach would see a huge decrease in the amount of waste in future, although the difficulty is that many companies base their business models of repeatable business after their product needs replacing. According to Apple's data on the subject phones should last for 3 years, but at the same time they recently fought a case arguing that they weren't responsible for their phones lasting more than one year. Whichever is the case, the phones need to be scrapped and replaced between 1-3 years, creating large amounts of waste, but ultimately playing into Apple's business model of customers replacing their handsets.
However, companies like Patagonia, Fairphone, and Nudie Jeans have all built business models focussed on this exact approach, with Patagonia even creating a black Friday advert telling people to not buy a new coat. Patagonia and Nudie Jeans in particular both work within the apparel industry where product longevity has always been comparatively short, but both are still multi-national, multi-million dollar companies taking cradle-to-cradle approaches and promoting people to repair their clothes rather than buying new ones.
China has managed to deal with a huge amount of recycling and make it a profitable enterprise, so there is no reason why with some innovative thinking it can't be done in other countries too. For companies willing to take what has traditionally been seen as a governmental role, they can both alleviate a big environmental problem and potentially make a profit too. For instance, according to IBIS World, the recycling facilities sector was already expected to grow by 5.7% per year, which is likely to increase following this move.
Companies have been promising to use more recycled materials for several years, but one of the key challenges they have faced is that there is not the kind of supply of recycled materials available to them. For instance, Coca-Cola committed to using at least 25% recycled plastic in its bottles by 2015, but were forced to back away from this commitment as there was a scarcity of supply and the cost was prohibitive. Walmart had a similar problem when they committed to using 3 billion pounds of recycled plastic in its packaging by 2020, but Rob Kaplan, Director of Product Sustainability at Walmart said 'The problem is supply'.
There is a real desire amongst companies to increase the amount of recycled materials in their products, but especially in western countries, with the amount of material sent abroad there hasn't been a readily useable supply of materials. With this move essentially keeping materials in-house, it offers the opportunity to create an infrastructure where companies can actually use this material to create the kind of products they want to.
It is not simply about creating more environmentally friendly products, either, it also makes huge financial sense. Using recycled aluminium, for instance, requires 95% less energy and creates 90% less greenhouse gas emissions, so naturally companies would be better off by using it. It's why some companies have already begun investing in recycling programs, for instance both Walmart and Coca-Cola have created a $100m Closed Loop Fund which offers zero- and low-interest loans to cities and recycling companies to help with recycling initiatives. With companies already putting their money behind these kinds of initiatives programs, there are signs of hope that China's move won't see us drowning in plastic bottles.