Design for recycling sounds like a good idea, doesn’t it? The idea that products and packages should be designed to be easily recyclable is often cited as a solution to what ails recycling. The logic seems simple. If products were designed with recycling in mind, materials recovery facilities (MRFs) would be more efficient, processing costs would go down and markets would be better.
Some groups have embraced this concept. The Association of Plastic Recyclers, for instance, has done extensive work to improve the recyclability of plastic packages. Its “Design Guide for Plastic Recyclability” is a treasure trove of information on avoiding recycling problems caused by features such as adhesives, labels and inks that can be added to a package. These features are often used to enhance marketability or to provide vital information to consumers, with no idea of their negative impact on recyclability. The guide, for instance, lists three colors that are preferred for PET recycling and several others that are detrimental. It’s hard to argue with the wisdom and effectiveness of this approach.
However, recyclability is not a package’s only function. To me, the most important criteria is simple: I want the package to protect the product I am buying. I also want a package that is convenient to use and has information about the product. Recyclability is important, but it is not my sole reason for buying a product in a particular package. I suspect I am not alone in this. Consumers may tell pollsters they look for the recycling label when they are shopping, but their actions betray them. Little real-world data exists showing that recyclability is a deal maker for consumer purchasing decisions.
In fact, one of our most popular packages is unrecyclable. Flexible packaging, such as pouches, bags and other packages that gain their shape when they are filled, is surpassed only by corrugated boxes in the packaging market. Consumers love them because they are lightweight and easy to use and transport. Manufacturers also love them for the cost savings caused by their light weight, as well as the associated lower energy, storage and transportation costs.
Despite those environmental benefits, many recyclers and environmentalists don’t like flexible packaging (although I suspect their children use pouches and similar packages with glee). Yet, flexible packaging has a lower environmental footprint from upstream to downstream than its recyclable competitors. Flexible packaging has clearly reduced the amount of waste generated and sent to disposal (and recycling). Local governments, and you and I as taxpayers, benefit from this.
Designing for recycling is important, but companies may find more effective ways to reduce their environmental footprint. Starbucks recently announced its plan to design, build and operate 10,000 “greener stores” by 2025. I suspect these greener stores will have a far more positive impact on the environment than the company’s attempts to design more recyclable coffee cups.
Even if Starbucks designed a 100 percent recyclable cup, its customers would still have to recycle them. Look in the recycling bin at your local coffee house. It’s not a pretty picture. Customers may want to do the right thing, but mostly they are in a hurry. Any bin will do when you are in a rush. By concentrating on its physical property to lower its environmental footprint, Starbucks can focus on what it controls and achieve the most effective ways to reduce its environmental footprint.
I’ll drink to that when I have my next cold brew.
Chaz Miller is a longtime veteran of the waste and recycling industry. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.