The world waste crisis demands we rethink the future.
Our linear economy is focused on the short-term, and has led to more waste and more environmental impact than at any other time in human history. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, in 2017, the United States produced over 267 million tons of solid waste, or about four and a half pounds per person per day. And roughly half of that material was recyclable.
Since 2018, after China significantly decreased the amount of recyclable material it was willing to accept, most of what the United States had recycled in the past has come back home. Many municipalities lack the recycling infrastructure to make use of this material, meaning they must now pay to have it transported elsewhere, or else deposit it in landfills.
The more we produce, the more we consume, and the more waste we create. We must move toward a more “circular” economy. We must begin treating recyclable material as a resource — shifted from the end of a linear economy to the front of a circular one.
A circular economy is based on the long-term: allowing the market to shift production and management of resources more in line with nature, where there is no waste. All elements have a part to play and are continuously reused. Transitioning to a circular economy not only has environmental benefits, but provides economic opportunities, and builds long-term resilience.
Achieving the circular economy will require three major strategies:
Waste is a design flaw. So we can start by “designing out” waste from our consumer products, packaging in particular — the single largest source of plastic waste. Only 9% of all plastics created have ever been recycled, and one reason is the difficulty of recycling it. Unlike paper or glass, many plastics are not easily re-formable into other products, and the vast majority of our plastic bottles and packages are simply tossed into landfills — or worse, our waterways.
Eliminating the use of toxic chemicals also contributes. Anything that cannot be recycled or negatively affects the environment is an obstacle for the circular economy. By eliminating toxic waste, we reduce the need for special waste handling, as well as waste itself.
Designing products for a circular economy means packaging and materials that are recyclable, compostable, or consumable. All the better if the products themselves are also recyclable, or reusable.
Think of the opportunities for disruption of existing, wasteful systems. Just like the milk man who used to leave fresh milk by the door, and take away your used jugs to be reused and refilled, the producers who leap first into the circular economy with products designed to be re-used and recycled will reap the economic benefits.
The circular economy also demands durability. We need to use our products and materials longer. We must break our addiction to the planned obsolescence of products which could easily last us years or more, and stop thinking about “end-of-life”. This starts with producers, by designing products to be used and reused over a lifetime instead of an intentionally short product cycle.
As consumers, we must also do our part. Everything we consume has embodied carbon (the energy and emissions associated with its creation). The longer we use a product, the longer we prevent more carbon from entering the atmosphere. And the fewer discarded products (and their packaging) that enter our landfills.
Imagine a phone that you use for ten years instead of two. Or appliances that can be repaired instead of replaced. Remember the TV ad about the Maytag repairman who had nothing to do because their appliances were so good. Today’s repairmen are going out of business because products are cheaper to replace than repair. But what happens to the appliances when they break? They get discarded, adding more material to our landfills.
We can break this cycle, bring back jobs, and reduce waste at the same time.
We need to compost and build other regenerative systems.
For example, we need to tackle the problem of food waste. According to the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization, approximately 1.6 billion tons of food is wasted annually, and nearly all of it finds its way into landfills. But if this organic material could be saved instead of trashed, it could be composted and its carbon content returned to the soil. Food waste can also be used in bioplastics, or be turned into bio-based fuels. That is a regenerative system.
Household composting is the first step. By placing your food waste into a compost bin, you are preventing that waste from entering the landfill. Scaled up for food producers and restaurants, this could eliminate almost 15% of waste produced in the U.S. alone.
Gone are the days when we could mass-produce, mass-consume, and mass-dispose all without care for what happens at the beginning and the end of our economic cycle. The damage done to our environment through over-harvesting of resources is approaching irreversible levels. And the sheer volume of waste produced by our economy has become both a health hazard and a drain on productivity as municipalities must now pay to dispose of waste that was once recyclable.
In a circular system, waste is reduced to near zero. Biodegradable materials are returned to the environment, and what is non-biodegradable is reused. Landfills become a thing of the past. And the pollution of our environment with non-recyclable waste is significantly reduced.
That is the future of waste, and the future we must all strive to achieve.
Rubicon recently published an Environmental, Social, Governance (ESG) report, Toward a Future Without Waste. I encourage you to download and read more about what we are doing to transform the entire category of waste and recycling.