The breakdown of the recycling industry has less to do about China’s ban, scrap impurities, underdeveloped domestic markets, and consumer noncompliance, and more to do about a misprioritized approach to material waste in which these problems have exposed.

On the one hand, the current recycling market crisis can be alleviated by shifting export markets, introducing technologies to sort cleaner stock, developing new market outlets for recycled content, and improving recycling behaviors.  These actions would indeed help and should be pursued to improve recycling performance and economics for the future.

On the other hand, a greater and lasting impact can be achieved by changing the strategy on waste to one that favors source reduction over recycling.  The best way to fix a broken recycling industry is to increase material reduction and reuse for waste prevention, properly prioritizing recycling as the third “R” in the hierarchy sequence behind “Reduce” and “Reuse.”  With reductions in waste, especially low-value, difficult-to-recycle and environmentally harmful items, the recycling industry and its commodity-driven business can better optimize the balance of material volume and market value.

Recycling does not reduce waste.  As explained by Leyla Acaroglu in her essay, System Failures: Planned Obsolescence and Enforced Disposability, “recycling validates waste” by instilling the acceptance of disposability and one-time use of products, often being used “as a manipulative tactic to keep consumers locked into enforced consumption cycles.”  Products designed for single-use recycling have short lifespans and values that encourage increasing production, consumption and disposal for economic gains.  Single-use products perpetuate the linear economic model of taking resources, making goods, and generating waste, passing disposal responsibilities and costs downstream.  Recycling enables toleration of waste accumulation and evades transition to better systems design for material management.

Kenneth Worthy, author of Invisible Nature, describes in a Psychology Today article the “Rebound Effect” in which recyclability may make people consume more, and asserts that “the very idea of recycling may distract us from fundamental changes that are more effective at reducing our environmental impacts.”  Cited research in the Journal of Consumer Psychology found that the ability to recycle does “lead to increased resource usage.”

Packaging, representing the largest category of the U.S. municipal solid waste stream at 30%, offers examples of how recycling capabilities serve as a justifier of increases in single-use waste.  In 2017, the recovery rate of old corrugated containers (OCC) at 88.8% was matched with the all-time high in supply of containerboard at 35.2 tons, fueled by a growing ecommerce market.  The corrugated box industry uses high recycling rates to market more single-use box consumption.  This messaging is at odds with the fundamental shift needed to more waste prevention and less waste management.  “No matter how you try to spin it,” writes Ms. Acaroglu, “if your company produces products that are designed to be used once and then discarded, you are part of one of the biggest social issues to infect our planet.”

Business strategies, models and designs should be focused on transitioning from disposability to preservation, from one-ways to round-trips, from linear to circular, and from recycling to reuse.  With more reusable product designs and systems in place, the recycling industry will be less burdened with volume of lower-value materials and refocused on strengthening its commodity markets for after-use waste.  Just because recycling is an option, doesn’t mean we should do more of it, especially when better options exist.

Tim Debus
President & CEO
Reusable Packaging Association