Rethinking Recycling: One Company’s View

Over the past few years, we have been hearing a lot about how consumers have been given the burden of recycling for too long. John Oliver, the New York Times, Frontline and others have given a hard look at the industry and question how we have been approaching waste and recycling, particularly when it comes to plastics. They rightly point out that the burden needs to shift from the individual and local governments to the producers of single-use plastics and excessive plastic packaging.

On the other hand, Americans generally have had poor participation with recycling, with the US recycling rate averaging 32%, according to the EPA. Notably, some places are doing better than others, but the reality is that companies like Unilever and PepsiCo have been trying to increase the amount of recycled plastic in their packaging for years, without success. If the recycled plastic feedstocks aren’t great quality, contaminated, or simply the wrong type of plastic, they can’t be used. They need more of the right kind of plastic in a clean stream. Helping to make this happen has been Great Forest’s goal for a long time.

While energy efficiency grabbed much of the attention in discussions about sustainability and climate change, we focused on what many ignored: the trash leaving facilities.

The name Great Forest was a reflection of our desire to retain the great forests of the world through better management of our waste paper resources. When we began to help businesses recycle in 1989, the term sustainability was new. Great Forest essentially disrupted the New York City commercial waste market by showing clients, which included many building owners and managers, that they could save money by implementing recycling programs for their building tenants.

Today, it is not just about saving money. The need for circular thinking to protect our forests, oceans and beyond, is even greater. The amount of waste generated has accelerated over the course of the global pandemic. Not only is trash becoming harder and harder to ignore, but it is also becoming more and more expensive to deal with. Recycling alone, while essential, will not solve the problem.

From Recycling To Zero Waste: Looking Up and Down

So our focus has shifted to Zero Waste. The solution is to work our way up the Zero Waste hierarchy, while also working our way down. Not just managing waste downstream, but also looking upstream, minimizing materials that would become waste.

The point of recycling, after all, has always been about circularity. By looking upstream, we can rid ourselves of the excess input, so that the downstream waste is cleaner, and with a higher probability of completing the circular loop.

On a practical level, this means that every individual and business should continually improve their own efforts at waste reduction and recycling, while also pushing vendors and producers towards greater responsibility to meet all our needs with less plastic, less packaging, less waste. We can do both. We must do both.

We have been helping businesses work up and down the Zero Waste pyramid in two ways:

  1. Using a Waste Infrastructure Scorecard to show them how effective their current efforts are; and
  2. following up with an Upstream Management Review, which looks at what can be done before materials end up in the waste stream.

The key to it all lies at the very top of the Zero Waste pyramid: Rethink and Redesign.

Since Redesign is outside the purview of most individuals, this is where manufacturers and producers have to play their part and step in with more sustainable alternatives.

Rethink, on the other hand, is available to everyone. We must rethink waste (can something be re-used instead of landfilled?), and rethink purchasing (what alternatives currently exist for the items we need; and can they can be made or packaged in more sustainable materials?).

Only by engaging in Rethink can we push for Redesign. Individuals (both people and businesses) have to Rethink to get producers to Redesign and close the loop. This is how we can can reduce waste, especially plastics, and build a better future: by doing it together.


This article is by Anna Dengler, Senior Sustainability Advisor, Great Forest.

Photo by dan lewis on Unsplash

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