Keith Nunes 2019KANSAS CITY — The constant drumbeat of food and beverage companies announcing plans to one day shift to 100% recyclable packaging is laudable. Yet such efforts will mean little if the global recycling industry remains in disarray. In many municipalities around the world, materials collected for recycling are not being recycled.

China was once the world’s leading importer of recycled materials, but beginning in 2018 the country imposed stringent requirements on the recyclable materials it would accept and raised processing fees that triggered a sharp reduction in imports. The ripple effect has been severe. In the United States, many municipalities that relied on China are now sending materials recycled to more traditional waste disposal programs such as landfills and incineration.

A study conducted by researchers at the University of Georgia and published in the journal Science Advances found that since 1992 China imported approximately 106 million tonnes of plastic waste, equating to nearly half of the world’s plastic waste exports.

“About 111 million metric tons of plastic waste is going to be displaced because of the import ban through 2030, so we’re going to have to develop more robust recycling programs domestically and rethink the use and design of plastic products if we want to deal with this waste responsibly,” said Jenna Jambeck, associate professor in the University of Georgia’s College of Engineering and co-author of the study.

Making the situation more challenging in the United States is the structure of the nation’s recycling industry — a patchwork of state and municipal programs. There are few national laws or standards governing the industry. State and local governments have created residential pickup programs and formed partnerships with private businesses for the collection and processing of the waste. China’s disruptive decision has led many municipalities to suspend such programs or redirect how recyclable waste is disposed.

The current state of the recycling industry creates a daunting challenge for companies. Earlier this year the market research company Nielsen published data showing that 81 per cent of consumers said it was either “extremely” or “very” important that companies implement programs to improve the environment. Nielsen added that 73 per cent of global consumers said they “would” change or “probably would” change their consumption habits to reduce their impact on the environment.

“Consumers are thinking more deeply about what happened before their moment of purchase and what will happen to whatever packaging or other materials used in the product after they’re done using it,” said Julia Wilson, director, global responsibility and sustainability for Nielsen, in a Feb. 7 webinar hosted by Nielsen.

The complete recycling of materials is an issue that requires coordinated action among individual companies and their representative trade associations. Companies may throw their weight behind local collection and recycling programs while industry groups like the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the American Beverage Association, the Food Marketing Institute and others should lobby for support at the national and international level.

To be effective, sustainability programs require an infrastructure that not only generates environmentally-friendly waste, but also processes it for reuse. The current state of recycling in the United States shows the environmental loop is in need of completion.