Recycling has been the rallying cry of the environmental movement since the 1970s, a decade where plastic debris in oceans was first observed and Earth Day was inaugurated. Recycling was viewed then as the solution to the use-and-throw-away model of consumption that had steadily taken hold and resulted in the production of more imperishable plastic waste than the world knew how to manage. Fifty years later and recycling still remains the go-to mantra to solve the world’s plastic problem, but it has done little to slow down the production of plastic. Around 320 million tonnes of plastic are produced every year with only 2% of that plastic recycled in a closed-loop system. With plastic production expected to quadruple by 2050, a new, more radical solution is needed if we are to preserve our environment from our destructive plastic habits.
Recycling is centred around the idea of getting a second life from products by converting waste into reusable materials. This can be as straight forward as transforming a plastic bottle into a new plastic lid or the more complicated process of upcycling, for example turning a plastic bottle into fleece-lining for clothing. It may be surprising to hear that it was the plastics industry who first introduced and pushed the idea of recycling as the solution. In the 1970s, the plastic industry led a number of influential campaigns that encouraged municipalities to collect and process recyclable materials as part of their waste-management systems. It was the ideal solution for the industry as it placed no responsibility on the producers to account for the side effects of a product once it was sold, and it avoided changes to consumer behaviour and production. Instead, all responsibility was left with the consumer and national institutions, trapping both in a never-ending pursuit of continuously generated waste.
Recycling, at its best then, is a mopping technology, dealing with the immediate problem of existing plastic waste but not preventing it. Even endeavours such as upcycling, which has become a huge movement within the fashion industry in particular, only serves to extend the life of plastic waste. This method involves turning plastic waste into higher quality products such as shoes, swimming costumes and bags to name a few, but these products will eventually end up in landfills as their plastic components never break down. More concerning, these upcycled items have been shown to leak microplastics into the environment, which eventually end up in our food systems. Waste-to-energy solutions, which involve the burning of plastic waste to produce energy, also only mop up our current plastic and have the added concern of releasing toxic emissions into the air.
What’s more, at least 50% of plastic packaging items cannot be recycled. Small format packaging such as sachets, snack packaging that has layers of plastic and aluminium, and food contaminated packaging such as coffee capsules, are too difficult to recycle. Of the remaining 50% of plastic packaging items, only the highest quality items are able to be recycled into new products, but these have a limited life span of two to three recycles before they too become degraded and unrecyclable. As a result, all these items find their way to the growing landfills that now populate our environment.
Our only long-term, viable solution to effectively manage plastic waste is to skip plastics in the first place. The idea of reuse is centred around developing and manufacturing products that last several life cycles in a closed-loop system. The items are created to be durable rather than disposable, and their lifespan extended through maintenance, repair, refurbishment and redistribution. To implement a full reuse system, a fundamental rethinking of product delivery, service systems, packaging and the way we consume, is essential.
While this fundamental shift in thinking that comes with the reuse model may appear daunting, it is already being implemented in number countries across the world with encouraging success. Our venture Kecipir in Indonesia, for example, offers customers freshly harvested vegetables and fruits delivered to the customer’s home in reusable bags and crates that can be returned for the next order. The Loop system is another example, which offers customers every day products such as shampoos in reusable packing that can be returned and refilled.
Business owners who offer reuse products or systems have been shown to receive short term benefits such as direct contact with the customer to better understand their wants and needs as well as offer additional services such as repair and maintenance. They have also noted long term benefits that include lower exposure to financial risks as business owners are able to take back control over our stock of resources. There is also increased consumer loyalty and resulting business resilience.
Since the 1950s there has been a twenty-fold increase in plastic production with 75% of that early plastic waste still contributing to the current waste accumulating in landfills and the ocean today. If we are to address plastic pollution and create a properly built circular economy then the focus should be on preventing waste from being created in the first place. Recycling is a means to deal with the plastic waste we have already created, reuse is a means of stopping plastic waste at its source.