Opinion - Commentary

Getting serious about recycling means starting with truly recyclable products

John Hayes
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Key Points
  • If the products we are asking Americans to recycle are not worth recycling — or are actually impossible to recycle — we are just managing garbage.
  • A recent report from the Environmental Protection Agency confirmed that only 25% of waste in the United States is actually being recycled,
  • Focusing more on product design and real recycling would be a big help.
Outdoor recycling bin with message reading Please Recycle, at the Tilden Botanical Garden in Tilden Regional Park, an East Bay Regional Park in Berkeley, California.
Gado Images | Getty Images

This week, legislators introduced the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act in a comprehensive attempt to hold businesses accountable for the waste they create.

How did we get here? Since the 1970s, Americans have been told to recycle. Dutifully, millions of us do just that, with the promise that when we put our waste into a recycling bin, we've done our part to save the planet.

But a recent report from the Environmental Protection Agency confirmed that only 25% of waste in the United States is actually being recycled, and most of that is downcycled into lower value products, which ultimately end up in landfills … or worse. That's not real recycling. As the world confronts an overwhelming packaging waste crisis, it's worth asking, Why we aren't we recycling more?

The truth is that our current focus on recycling isn't working because so many products, and the packages that contain them, are designed and sold to consumers without enough knowledge as to how, or even if, they can be recycled at all.

If the products we are asking Americans to recycle are not worth recycling — or are actually impossible to recycle — we are just managing garbage. That's distressing if, like many of us, you reliably sort your recyclables from your trash believing that they will then be recycled and not simply deposited in a landfill. But that's exactly what is happening at times across the U.S., as cities and states seek to improve recycling rates without taking a hard look at the products we are asking people to recycle in the first place.

Focusing more on product design and real recycling would be a big help. The World Bank estimates that about one-third of solid waste is dumped in landfills or burned. Imagine reducing our current landfill footprint, globally, by 30%. That's the kind of game-changing solution we need to seriously address the packaging waste crisis.

During our 140 years in business, Ball Corp. has been in the plastic, glass and aluminum beverage container businesses, so we've seen the sustainability of these materials firsthand — and now we're solely focused on aluminum.

The aluminum beverage cans our company makes today are sold, used, collected, recycled and put back on a store shelf in 60 days. And that can happen indefinitely because they are made of one material and are easily and inexpensively sorted. Because recycled aluminum has real economic value, its collection is incentivized, which is one reason why 75% of all aluminum ever produced is still in use today, and why our aluminum beverage cans contain more than 70% recycled content.

In contrast, only 9% of all plastic ever produced has been recycled, and mostly, it's only downcycled. Downcycling products, including when plastic is 'recycled' to become part of a sneaker or fibers in a carpet, is not sustainable because eventually those products end up in landfills, too. Real recycling happens when the value of the product being recycled is maintained from one use to another. And there is a lot we can do to encourage it.

First, we need an international standard to provide an honest look at products' true lifecycles, including how easily they can be recycled. If some products recycle endlessly, shouldn't we have a standard that recognizes that fact?

Second, we need to differentiate between mere collection and real recycling. We shouldn't count products that are sorted and picked up for recycling and then dumped in a landfill, but that's happening today.

Third, we need to invest in recycling infrastructure so all communities, no matter their state or region, have the opportunity to recycle.

Last, we need to do a better job educating consumers about what happens to materials after they are collected for recycling so they can make more informed purchasing decisions.

Despite the scale of the packaging pollution crisis, it is clear change is coming. Companies are increasingly making sustainability a core value. More than half of consumers say they will pay more for sustainable products, and forward-thinking brands get that. Instead of saying, "Buy this because it's a great product," savvy marketers are saying, "Buy this because it's a great product and the container won't end up as pollution." Consumers are responding with their wallets.

To make a real and positive impact on the packaging waste crisis, we need to focus on all the things we can do to promote real recycling so we can bend the dangerous curve of packaging pollution toward more sustainable outcomes.

Our environment and the future of our planet depend on it.

John A. Hayes is the chairman, president and chief executive officer of Ball Corp.