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Visible Hands: Home for our plastic? 🗑️
Our economy is set up for single-use materials and products. And most of our waste has nowhere to go. Read more about the future of waste from this week’s guest writer, Caroline Ling.
Caroline Ling is a Stanford Graduate School of Business MBA pursuing a joint MS Degree in Environment & Resources. With a previous background in human-centered design and digital innovation, she is passionate about leveraging behavioral design and technologies to achieve circular economy at scale. We are excited to have her as our guest writer today.
Recycling is a mess…
We’ve come a long way since the early adoption of plastics during World War II. Plastic production has grown from 15 million tonnes in 1964 to 311 million tonnes in 2014, and is forecasted to quadruple by 2050. On average, an American is responsible for generating almost one pound of plastic waste every day, which is the highest per capita globally.
For the past 30 years, the US has “outsourced” our waste problem to Asian countries, such as China, by shipping recyclable materials overseas for cheaper recycling fees. However, China’s National Sword policy in 2008 more heavily restricted contamination in recycling, causing the overseas demand for recycling feedstock to tank. Due to the long-standing problems around infrastructure gaps and lax regulations of plastic waste, the US now has way too much supply of highly contaminated plastic waste that has no home to go to.
Domestic recycling rules are complicated and city-dependent. A broker network determines access to different secondary markets for our waste, and there are fluctuating demands for different types of plastics on a daily basis. For instance, the same plastic yogurt tub that you throw away in Mountain View may find its way to a secondary market through the city’s broker, but the same tub may end in a landfill if disposed of in neighboring Palo Alto. This is how recycling earned its nickname “wish cycling.”
Unaccepted plastics ultimately end up in a landfill where they take millions of years to fully decompose. Scientists have found traces of microplastics from the summit of Mount Everest to the depths of the Pacific Ocean. And negative externalities caused by plastics are estimated to cost $40 billion, according to the UN Environmental Programme.
Can market forces help address this problem?
Though there is no silver bullet solution, Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) may provide a path forward. EPR is not a new concept; in fact, most European countries and certain countries in Asia such as South Korea and Japan have implemented EPR effectively since the 1990s.
There are multiple ways for producers to price in the true cost of end-of-life disposal of materials:
EPR can include mandates for brands to buy back a certain amount of recycled content in their packaging and thereby creating the demand for recycled content domestically.
EPR can also require brands to subsidize local recycling infrastructure by investing in operational facilities and capacities based on the company’s level of plastic production and sales distribution.
EPR also leverages negative incentives such as taxes on single-use plastics. This would increase product costs and shift demand away from single-use. The current CA ballot on a single-use plastic tax is a trial for EPR.
Research and development in compostable materials is another opportunity. Top consumer packaged goods companies, such as Unilever and Coca-Cola, signed the US Plastic Pact earlier this year to commit to 100% recyclable, reusable or compostable packaging by 2025. Although it sounds attractive to focus on developing technology for compostable materials, the lack of composting infrastructure at the state and city level is even more pressing. According to BioCycle, there are only 184 commercial composting facilities in the US; this only serves 4.8% US households. Without access to commercial composting facilities, any innovative “compostable” packages will still end in a landfill (albeit with less environmental impact given its bio-based chemical decomposition).
Investment in composting infrastructure is primarily driven by demand from local waste haulers, who are third-party contractors for local municipalities. Local waste policies play a critical role in generating demand for hauling business. States such as California, Vermont, and Washington have released aggressive bills around waste reduction by limiting organic waste collection. For instance, the CA Senate Bill 1383 mandates 75% waste reduction of organic waste disposal by 2025. These bills generate momentum to increase composting capacity and improve local waste infrastructure.
Shoutout to Caroline for many of these suggestions!
As a consumer:
Check twice the label before you toss away the trash. When in doubt, put it in the garbage can. If you want some personal advice on how to declutter your life and/or share your personal journey around waste, please reach out to Caroline through Waste Wizards.
Be mindful about what you need versus what you want. As holidays are approaching, let’s use this time to rethink what truly gives us meaning! Get creative around exploring alternatives to traditional gifting.
Check out Zero Waste Design’s Waste Calculator to see how much waste your office or residential building is estimated to generate.
As an employee:
Get your company to publish environmental data around the production and distribution of your materials / products to set an example for transparency, accountability, and responsibility. Check out the recommendations from the Task Force for Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) to start.
As a citizen:
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation offers resources on urban policy that city governments can use to enable better waste solutions. One idea is to involve residents in local budgeting.
For those of you in California, participate in the Statewide Commission on Recycling Markets and Curbside Recycling to voice your concerns and opinions about the current state of recycling in the state.
As an investor:
Waste management has traditionally been a legacy industry with lots of investment opportunities for technologies, modernization, optimization and business model invention. Check out Closed Loop Partners and their research center for how they’ve thought about reducing waste.
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Environmental groups urge Biden to take action on plastics, prioritize market development: “Under the groups' proposal, EPA would also be charged to "develop new data collection methodologies to accurately report waste reduction, recycling, and composting rates throughout the United States"
Coke Resets Goal of Boosting Black Employees, After 20-Year Effort Loses Ground: “A change in the way the company reported its diversity numbers masked the backsliding on Black employees, and a 2017 restructuring contributed to a sharp drop in the pipeline of Black talent.”
Sen. David Perdue Sold His Home to a Finance Industry Official Whose Organization Was Lobbying the Senate: “Since the purchase and sale of this property by Sen. Perdue was not done on the open market, it raises serious suspicions as to whether the sale was in fact at fair market value.”
Stay connected via our Instagram, Twitter, Medium, and, of course, email (firstname.lastname@example.org)! Please invite any friends, roommates, coworkers, armchair activists, and composting aficionados to join the movement. See ya next Thursday!