I envy those of you born in the “glass is half full” camp as you always seem to have a hearty dose of hope close at hand. For those of us born with a “glass is half empty” view of the world, it can be tough to maintain hope while working in the environmental field, and lately, it seems to be getting increasingly difficult.
The accumulation of plastic in our oceans, the accumulation of toxic chemicals in our bodies and every other animal and the accumulation of CO2 emissions in our atmosphere—it can all be absolutely overwhelming. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to push forcefully away from my desk, exhale a massive sigh and go for a walk.
Yet, despite the doomsday data, I come back to work every day and do my best to be part of the solution. So, to honor those doing the amazing work that inspires me, and to give a boost to anyone else feeling environmental despair from time to time, here are 20 things that give me hope for 2020 and the decade ahead:
- National legislation on recycling: We’ve seen more national bills introduced to improve recycling in the past year than the industry has seen in total over the past two decades. Regardless of how you feel about the bills’ chances of success or what they aim to do, it’s encouraging to finally be having a national conversation.
- Corporate commitments: It’s hard to name a major brand or company that hasn’t made a public commitment in the last two years to reduce plastic, recycle more and/or reduce their carbon emissions. While there is a lively debate as to the muscle behind some of these promises, the truth is that companies are overwhelmingly feeling the need to address their plastic consumption.
- Pace of state and local policy: State legislators and local policymakers around the country want to help fix recycling, and there is a dizzying array of policies in nearly every legislature and many city councils.
- Rising awareness of consumption emissions: Climate action plans have traditionally focused on carbon emissions from energy production and transportation systems, but there is growing awareness that we can’t address climate change without also addressing our consumption. A C40 cities report found consumption-based emissions from nearly 100 of the world’s big cities already represent 10 percent of global greenhouse gas, and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation found a circular economy is key to reducing nearly half of global carbon emissions.
- Community composters: These hard-working entrepreneurs are the real deal when it comes to using business as a force for good, creating new jobs and local economic value while recovering tons of organic waste in the process. From EverGreen ZeroWaste in western Colorado to Compost House in South Carolina, composting is gaining momentum in every nook of the country.
- Carbon farming: Just adding compost to our soils is a simple yet remarkable way to actually pull carbon down out of the atmosphere and slow climate change. Marin County, Calif., is using compost on rangelands, while Boulder County, Colo., is looking at how to store carbon in household lawns and gardens as well as in agricultural areas.
- Ellen MacArthur Foundation: The foundation is helping make the circular economy a household word and creating a space where every major company wants to be involved.
- Brands working with each other, and with recyclers: From coffee cups to flexible film packaging to PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles, brands are coming together to cooperatively work on common packaging problems, despite the traditional taboo of working with the competition. Increasingly, these efforts are also bringing recyclers into the fold so we can finally bridge the connection from product design to collection systems to end markets through systems thinking along the supply chain.
- Food recovery: This is the quintessential example of the 3Rs and highlights the need to reduce and reuse before recycling or composting. In trying to develop solutions to food waste, we are also addressing deeper issues around hunger and social inequality, and seeing new and strengthened partnerships between groups working on all of these complex issues.
- EPR studies in Maine and Oregon: The extended producer responsibility (EPR) dialogue has shifted seismically from if manufacturers and brand owners should be responsible for the costs of recycling to how to transition to such a system. Studies underway in Maine and Oregon for EPR systems for packaging will help lay the foundation for change in the U.S. in the coming years.
- The rising voice of youth: It’s not just the youth leaders like Greta Thunberg who are changing the conversation. It’s the local kids coming out to testify at city council meetings and meet with state legislators. It’s the local school children correctly composting their lunch scraps and recycling their juice boxes. And it’s groups like Post Landfill Action Network that are mobilizing college students to create systemic change on campus.
- Bans and fees on single-use plastics: It’s been amazing to watch the speed at which the conversation has shifted around plastics and the strong desire to create change. The world can mobilize quickly when we reach a tipping point.
- Funding toward recycling: There is a dizzying amount of spending on the front end on how we design and market products, and a paltry amount on the back end for how we reuse and recover those products. But times are changing. Industry and private investments are pouring into recycling, and with it comes a new wave of engineers, entrepreneurs and thought leaders to help us reimagine and redesign a better system.
- Rentable reusable cups: Single-use cups are following closely behind plastic bags as the next cultural faux pas. Major event venues and festivals are investing in rentable reusable cups like r.Cup, while Vessel is driving a reuse revolution at coffee shops.
- Online shopping means more reuse: Our shopping habits are changing, and with that, our delivery systems as well. At-home delivery offers tremendous potential for reuse options, from reusable shipping containers to entirely reusable product systems like Loop.
- Renting is the new buying. Fashion is just one of many industries that is transforming our ideas of ownership. Major brands like American Eagle and Ann Taylor are turning to rental models, while places like ThredUp make it easy to resell your gently used clothes.
- Resurgence of bottle deposit policies: Bottle deposit systems are gaining momemtum worldwide as a proven strategy to recycle beverage containers. Nine states introduced bills in the U.S. in 2019, and now a national bill is part of the dialogue.
- Apps for good: Like every other industry, we are influenced by the infiltration of smart things into our lives. New apps are popping up all the time to make it easier for us to share a ladder among neighbors, know if a product is recyclable, repair a broken toaster or positively change the world in a dozen other little ways.
- Recycling bins around the world: Yes, I’m that geeky tourist taking pictures of the recycling bins on my travels. They make me smile for two reasons: first, people all around the world want to do their part to reduce waste and curb climate change, and second, recycling is always somewhat local and looks slightly different in every community, which invites creativity and hope.
- How easy it was to make this list! I actually started by trying to find just five things to give me hope in the new year, but with no effort at all, it quickly cascaded into 20 things for 2020, which of course has a nice ring to it. But literary appeal aside, there are countless reasons to be hopeful if we stop to pull our heads above the dark clouds and notice them. Drop me an email and share yours, too, or share them among your colleagues, and together, we can reduce despair and recycle hope.
Kate Bailey is the policy and research director at Eco-Cycle, one of the oldest and largest recycling organizations in the U.S.