Recycling is a growing industry, and it has become clear that it has a sibling-like relationship to the packaging industry. Like a younger sibling, the recycling industry is supported largely by the packaging industry; and like an older sibling, the packaging industry wants to see the recycling industry succeed.
The packaging community has moved past the notion that recycling is simply good for the planet. In this modern era of striving for sustainability, the packaging community recognizes that businesses that sell goods will only prosper in a responsible manner if the packaging industry and recycling industry both thrive. If we want them to succeed, we just have to examine the laws of supply and demand. For a higher quantity of transactions (that is, more recycling), supply and/or demand has to increase. The packaging industry, it turns out, has the ability to positively influence both supply and demand.
Supply can fundamentally be thought of as the willing ability of recyclers to sell their recovered material at a given price. It's a no-brainer that it's preferable for them to sell at a certain price if their costs are lower. That's where the packaging community can help.
The recycling industry incurs a tremendous expense in their sorting operations and filtration of undesirable contaminants. If the packaging industry can create packaging that is easily sorted and not likely to introduce potential contaminants, then it makes the recycling industry's job easier and ultimately reduces their costs. When their job is easier, supply of recovered materials will increase.
Likewise, supply will increase if consumers give recyclers access to used packaging in greater quantities and without undesirable contaminants. Proper on-package messaging from the packaging industry can help consumers help recyclers, which in the end helps the packaging industry. Improvements to packaging will eventually come around that improve access to recycled materials.
Demand, on the other hand, is the measure of how badly the packaging industry wants to buy recycled materials. Packagers have already embraced recycled content as a means to improve the environmental attributes of their packaging. It's easy to think that an increasing demand from consumers for greener products will trickle down and increase demand from the packaging industry for recycled materials. Again, proper on-package messaging from the packaging industry can educate consumers about the importance of recycled content.
Certain changes can even increase demand from the packaging industry independently of consumer demand. For example, investment into new manufacturing technologies will help overcome the challenge of using less-than-perfect quality materials. It is also plausible we will see recycled materials become consistently cheaper than virgin raw materials. True cost accounting that takes into account the environmental costs of extracting raw materials might make that future an instant reality today.
Unfortunately, the recycling and the packaging industries do occasionally act like bickering siblings. Recyclers might argue that the burden lies on the packaging industry to put forth packaging that is optimal for their current systems. Meanwhile, the packaging industry might feel like the recycling industry needs to modify their systems to keep pace with new packaging innovations. Recyclers want packagers to better cope with less-than-perfect recycled materials.
Packagers want recyclers to reduce contamination. The packaging industry wants the recycling industry to increase its supply. The recycling industry wants the packaging industry to increase its demand. Both industries would appreciate if the other would take the reigns on consumer education. At the end of the day, the siblings of this sometimes-dysfunctional family must find a way to get along. Fortunately for the packaging industry, they have more than one way to help their little sibling.
Adam Gendell is a project manager at GreenBlue's Sustainable Packaging Coalition. For additional information about the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, please visit www.sustainablepackaging.org.