Product packaging is the focus in our current recycling infrastructure. Metal cans, plastic containers and cardboard boxes are top of mind as far as recyclable items go, as these can be collected and processed at low cost and sold as an alternative to virgin material. Most packaging waste is less profitable and more difficult to recycle than these commodities, and some companies are taking it upon themselves to manage their own product packaging waste when the public infrastructure cannot. But why so much focus on packaging when product waste is equally important to consider?
The economics of waste are simple: a material will be recycled if there is an economic incentive to do so. Like most packaging, the cost of collection, separation and treatment for product waste tends to be greater than the materials are worth, and materials recovery facilities have little capability to process them properly. Further, a lack of focused infrastructure keeps recycling products far from mind, making capture and collection that much more difficult.
Despite these economic limitations, recycling product waste is not only possible, but my company TerraCycle is doing it every single day through key partnerships with consumer product companies, manufacturers and other organizations seeking to take greater responsibility for their part in the waste economy.D’Addario, for example, one of TerraCycle’s most recent partners and one of the largest musical instrument string manufacturers in the world, has long addressed the sustainability of their product packaging by turning from PVC plastic pouches to recycled paper envelopes printed with soy-based ink. Today, the company is taking responsibility for their product waste with the TerraCycle-powered Playback instrument string recycling and collection program, which launched this year.
Tech giant Apple Inc. demonstrates an understanding of their particular brand of e-waste (created by a steady schedule of product upgrades) with a take-back recycling program that feeds right back into their supply chain. With the tagline “Recycling an Apple product should be as easy as using one,” Apple Renew addresses their product waste stream and markets its value as a resource beyond the consumer: back to them as a manufacturer.
To properly manage our waste, we need to bring a perspective of value to it. In a press release from March of this year, Michael Wiener, the CEO of Duales System Holding, the organization behind Der Grüne Punkt (Green Dot), cites coffee capsule waste (which is not considered packaging by EU law) as a possible source of back-to-market aluminum. This development from Green Dot and its industry network, members of which pay a licensing fee based on their packaging stewardship initiatives, presents an opportunity to bring greater focus back to both packaging and products.
What separates the waste that we recycle and the waste that gets sent to landfills and incinerators is a matter of perspective. Looking at all aspects of product waste as positive assets is a comprehensive approach to waste management, while only focusing on packaging waste passes up the opportunity to capture valuable material resources we otherwise pay to have burned or buried. Nothing can’t be recycled, and it is up to consumers and manufacturers alike to create an infrastructure that focuses on product waste as a resource, inside and out.