Following decades of mass plastic consumption, scientists in the 1960’s began to notice the impact of plastics in our ecosystem. Society was introduced to one of the most well-established icons for sustainability: the universal recycling symbol. This iconic symbol was also paired with one of the most catchy environmental slogans of our time, The 3 R’s: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle.
Fast forward to today, these guiding principles for waste reduction still hold true. However, it’s important to recognize that the world has changed. Our waste management infrastructure, material needs, consumer behaviour, and production methods have all evolved. The challenges associated with plastic pollution have become more complex than ever. As a result, it’s time to evolve our standards for sustainability, and rethink our materials.
At erthos, we recognize the value in recycling. It’s an important component to achieving a circular economy and should be a priority alongside reducing and reusing. That said, recycling can’t be the only solution for organizations looking to combat plastic waste. We all need to be mindful of certain limitations in order to build a more robust strategy for all organizations producing, sourcing, or using single-use plastics.
Here are 3 examples of situations where a strategy to “rethink” your plastic materials is absolutely critical.
1. If your plastic products are designed for single use or short term value: rethink to alternative compostable materials
While metal and glass can be recycled a near infinite amount, the same can’t be said about plastics. Current recycling systems are often downcycling during processing which causes the quality of the material to deteriorate. Contamination and the mixing of plastic types also impact the quality of the material and result in secondary plastics that can’t be recycled further and are ultimately sent to landfills/incinerated. Due to the impact on material capabilities post-recycling, virgin plastic is often also required to support or improve material quality.
Recycling plastic does not always create an infinite closed loop. Extending the life of materials is important, but for short term products it reinforces the dependence of petroleum extraction and disposal.
2. If your products are made with mixed or lower grade plastics (#4-7): rethink to alternative compostable materials.
With over 300 million tonnes of plastics produced last year, historically only 9% of plastics were recycled globally, 12% were incinerated, while 79% ended up in our landfills and ecosystems. Part of the reason why recycling has become increasingly difficult is due to the many types of plastic categories that continue to be developed for new purposes. While plastics can be broken down into 7 broad categories, in reality there are thousands of different plastics, each with their own composition and characteristics. For example, common plastics like PET (used for water bottles) and HDPE (used for containers) are currently the most widely accepted in recycling systems globally. However, plastics like PP/PS/general mixed plastics (used in many single use items) are much more expensive and energy intensive to recycle, and have limited market demand even when they are.
Go beyond the symbol and ensure the type of plastic used in the material is most suitable for recycling.
3. If your plastic products have a unique, non-standard shape/size: rethink to alternative compostable materials.
There are a number of single-use plastics that aren’t recyclable simply due to their size or form factor. Recycling Infrastructure was designed to accept and collect standard sizes and shapes of high value items like plastic bottles. However, as we are now all aware, plastics have rapidly diversified across multiple industries and use cases, in all shapes and sizes. They can be as uniquely shaped as a plastic hanger, or as small as a bread tag. Regardless of the material, most recycling systems aren’t designed to sort and process these items, and further prevent effective recycling of standard plastics.
Identifying the impact of the material shape and size is key in finding suitable alternative solutions.
There isn’t 1 universal solution to addressing all plastic pollution.
At erthos we respect how far we’ve come in incorporating the 3 R’s of waste reduction. However, it’s now time to evolve our guiding principles, and rethink materials at our core. By moving towards compostable alternatives, we are closing a biological loop on plastic and ultimately preventing the accumulation of more non-biodegradable plastics in our landfills and waterways. Our approach to rethinking single-use plastic inputs is here to transform the zero waste landscape.
Is it time for your organization to rethink your plastics? Let’s chat.