While most of us don’t think of it this way, recycling is an old concept. Humans have been creatively reusing materials for centuries. As our collective waste problem grows in size, it forces us to become even more creative and diligent in finding solutions.
Many 20th century technological advancements engineered to improve our lives, like appliances, were originally designed to be repaired, not replaced. Over the years that has changed for a multitude of reasons. Obviously, corporations can make more money if they sell replacement products instead of replacement components. The rising cost of labor for repair technicians also makes the price of some repairs infeasible. Why spend more money to repair a microwave than it costs to buy a new one? But one single factor has contributed to worldwide waste more than any other: the age of plastics manufacturing.
It’s this plastic era that has introduced the huge recycling paradigm shift of the 20th century. In the United States, the shift began around the first Earth Day in 1970. The concept of ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’ was introduced. The US plastics industry spent a lot of lobby money campaigning to put the onus of environmental responsibility on consumers. Ads like the famous crying Native American were paid for by plastics companies to focus our attention on what we could do as individuals, instead of what companies should do. Plastics companies even invested money to get non-recyclable goods designated as recyclable to make us more likely to buy them. For instance, most flimsy plastics labeled as recyclable 3-7 have limited, or sometimes no, real recycling potential.1
With all that said, what can be done to better manage waste worldwide? Even acknowledging that companies, by and large, create the issue through manufacturing, can we make an impact as individuals? Let’s take a look at the progress we’re making around the globe.
We know waste is a global issue, but one of the largest producers of waste is the United States, which only manages a 25.8% recycling rate.2 However, the biggest struggle the US faces with recycling isn’t getting more people to recycle – it is getting people to recycle properly. Americans tend to recycle whatever they think should be recyclable, often opting to err towards recycling, rather than throwing something in the trash; this well-meaning thinking actually creates far more waste than it saves. For example, many in the US attempt to recycle plastic grocery bags, while in fact, these are only recyclable in specialized collection areas, often at local grocery stores. These bags frequently tangle in recycling machinery, representing both an impediment to efficiency and endangering workers, who must manually detangle them.
Luckily, Waste Management offers excellent resources to help guide people through sorting their recycling. The most important rules are also some of the easiest to follow:
- all bottles, cans, paper and cardboard must be clean to be recycled
- no food or liquid can be mixed in
- no plastic bags, or bagged recyclables
- “When in doubt: just throw it out.”
Following these three rules can help drastically reduce recycling contamination, which results in whole batches of recycling becoming unusable. While the US is grappling with stagnant rates and improper recycling, there are brighter horizons when considering global recycling efforts.
Several countries in the EU boast a recycling rate of over 50%, including the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, and Austria. The United Kingdom (UK) is not far behind, coming in at 39%.3 Ultimately, recycling success in these countries can be attributed to consumers responsibly separating their recyclable waste streams into paper, plastic, metal, and glass.
In Asia, the state of recycling success varies by country, but the trend is headed in the right direction. Shanghai recently became the first city in China to establish serious regulation regarding waste management. While triggering some culture shock for Shanghai residents and businesses, there have been significant efforts, both officially and voluntarily, to educate citizens on how to properly manage their waste. The Shanghai recycling system covers not only traditional recycling materials, such as plastics, paper, and glass, but also wet and dry food wastes for composting, and hazardous materials.
While the process can be confusing for first-time users, there are numerous guides to help consumers properly sort their waste under the new system. This practice will soon be executed in 46 cities in China, and it is expected to apply to all prefectural-level cities in the country before 2025. China has also made strides in providing clear instruction through social media. In the ubiquitous WeChat social media application, a user can simply type “garbage” and get guidance on the proper disposal methods for various items.
If there is one country that shows how successful recycling can be, it is Japan. The Japanese recycling system is extremely specific and organized, and its success is undeniable; for example, Japan has an 84% recycling rate on plastics.4 Different forms of recycling are collected on specific days, and receptacles are color-coded to keep sorting as intuitive as possible. Here too, there are numerous detailed guides for how to navigate the system. However, a system is only as good as its users, and Japanese citizens are responsible for not just sorting, but also preparing items before the recycling deposit. This includes steps such as removing bottle caps and labels, crushing cans before depositing, and separating paper from plastic in mixed packaging.
Many of these recycling preparation steps are important not just in Japan, but in recycling practices across the planet. As waste production continues to rise, recycling will only become a more critical tool for managing our waste as a global community. Ultimately, cultivating responsible individual recycling habits is a critical part of supporting a sustainable global society. Also, green-minded organizations like The Global Soap Project, which recycles the soaps from hotels and delivers to developing countries to improve their hygiene, are on the rise. Supporting companies that help reuse what would otherwise be considered waste is a great way to green-up planet Earth. And lastly, stay informed on waste legislation in your local area. Corporations are the biggest contributors to waste and it’s in these areas that there is the most opportunity for improvement. If possible, consider spending your money with companies that don’t use excessively wasteful packaging.
At this moment you may be thinking: doesn’t Cell Signaling Technology® (CST) ship products in containers? Is this whole article an ironic farce? It is true that we use plastic and other materials in reagent shipping. It is important to distinguish, though, that this is a constant conversation at our facilities. “What packaging is required to ensure the safe arrival and performance of this reagent?” We won’t ship something with excess waste, and we encourage all companies to evaluate and reduce waste wherever possible.
Learn more about sustainability at CST.
1 LastWeekTonight. (2021, March). Plastics: Last week tonight with John Oliver [Video]. HBO.
2 EPA, 2017. National Overview: Facts and Figures on Materials, Wastes and Recycling | US EPA https://www.epa.gov/facts-and-figures-about-materials-waste-and-recycling/national-overview-facts-and-figures-materials
3 European Environment Agency, 2013. Recycling Rates in Europe. https://www.eea.europa.eu/about-us/competitions/waste-smart-competition/recycling-rates-in-europe/image_view_fullscreen
4 Management, P.W., 2003. Plastic Waste Management Institute. Waste Manage. 139–143 http://www.pwmi.or.jp/ei/index.htm