Lisa McTigue Pierce, Executive Editor

May 25, 2016

5 Min Read
The recycling myth: Collection versus reuse rates

When it comes to environmental science and supply chain issues, if you don’t know Jack, here’s your opportunity to learn a thing or two about the truth of low recycling rates in the United States.

On Earth Day this year, media brand Fusion published the article “Happy Earth Day! America officially sucks at recycling.” The headline certainly captured my attention and I tweeted the link, adding the comment “Blunt & hard 2 argue.”

Jack Buffington agreed. He’s a supply chain executive at MillerCoors, the second largest beer manufacturer in the U.S., and a post-doctoral researcher in the fields of environmental science and supply chain for the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden.

He’s also the author of “The Recycling Myth: Disruptive Innovation to Improve the Environment,” so he knows a thing or two about this subject that most people might not.

After seeing my tweet, he sent me this email:

You probably know that it is true that America is about 18th in recycling, but what you may not know is that nations that are "good at recycling" have essentially the same reuse rates as the U.S. (e.g., plastic bottles). I know this to be true because not only have I been a leader in the U.S. consumer products industry, I am also a Ph.D. researcher in Sweden, often known as the most successful recycler. So I know a lot about what happens in nations that "don't suck."  

The belief that "if we collect more, it will be easier for companies to reuse materials" is just not true for most materials (it's true for aluminum), based on science and economics, not opinion. Given the chemical and economic properties of a plastic polymer, it has a cost equilibrium point at approximately 10%; in Europe, where there are higher mandated collection rates/subsidies, the average recycled content in a PET bottle is only 11.7%, per the European PET Bottle Platform (EPBP). A lot of packaging waste is incinerated as "waste to energy," and this refutes the conventional argument that collecting more will solve the problem. The truth of low recycling rates of plastic bottles is related to its polymer design not for recycle and the petrochemical supply chain. Unfortunately, efforts continue to focus on collecting more rather than redesigning the bottle and supply chain process.

To prove my case, I'm working with scientists to reverse engineer the supply chain system of a PET bottle to achieve a 100% reuse system in five years. We think we can do it, including agreement with the consumer product industry. I just published a book titled, "The Recycling Myth: Disruptive Innovation to Improve the Environment" that ties to this approach of transformation, and I have yet to have a scientist or economist dispute my findings.

Although I have support from chemists, economists and even environmental organizations, I have offered to have a debate with many of the well-known recycling organizations, and none of them have accepted my offer. This is because there remains a conventional belief, even after 40 years of trying, that we can collect our way from out of this problem, which is refuted based on economics and science. 

I have long wondered how the recycling collection rates jive with the amount of actual recycled material.

So I asked Jack, “Do you have any ‘reuse’ numbers in other countries? I have to admit that I don’t know who monitors reuse numbers in the U.S. All I’ve ever seen are collection numbers or percentages of materials available for collection.”

He was, again, fast and passionate with his response, sending me a presentation he delivered in March 2016 at the Congreso Internacional de Sustentabilidad Ibero in Mexico—along with this message:

You hit the nail on the head in your question! Yes, not much data on reuse rates, and how to define "reuse," but a lot on recycling. [See his slide above on recycling facts for the U.S., Sweden and Mexico.]

For example, I consider "reuse" to be "bottle to bottle," or even "can to car" (upcycling). But in some nations, a "zero waste" moniker is earned if reuse comes in the form of incineration via waste to energy!! So if one nation incinerates 50% of its waste while the other landfills 50%, it's clear that they both share poor reuse rates in a closed loop model, right?

And in Europe, there's a new EU [European Union] directive requiring nations to achieve a real 75% recycling rate by 2030 that won't be possible because they focus on eliminating packaging waste through “waste to energy.”  That's not environmental success to me!!

To Jack, environmental success means a revolution in new materials development, including materials that are 100% recyclable, reusable or that can be thrown away and reused by nature. For example, let’s convert monomer to polymer and back using bio-materials with the potential to be a true reusable plastic.

He’s a proponent of the circular economy method and thinks technology (not regulation) will help increase recycling rates and recycled-content use.

And he wants your help in figuring all this out.

I welcome any conversations and debates on the topic. I actually went to Sweden to get my Ph.D. expecting to bring back an approach that works, but I found that the problem lies in beverage container design and its supply chain, not recycling rates. And I'm focusing research to fix this problem in five years. Unfortunately, too many are locked into this conventional solution that doesn't and can't work.

Jack shared many of these thoughts recently on Radio Ecoshock, the largest "dark green" environmental podcast/radio program, which (he tells me) has more than 94 subscribing stations in North America. “Getting into a dialogue beyond ideology is important to solving the problem, and when a dark green environmentalist reads my book and then wants to talk means that we're heading in the right direction,” Jack says.

Reach him via LinkedIn at明-张杰-7042034, Twitter at @jbuffi1 or leave your comments below.


Jack Buffington


See a host of new ideas in sustainable packaging at EastPack 2016, June 14-16, in New York City.

About the Author(s)

Lisa McTigue Pierce

Executive Editor, Packaging Digest

Lisa McTigue Pierce is Executive Editor of Packaging Digest. She’s been a packaging media journalist since 1982 and tracks emerging trends, new technologies, and best practices across a spectrum of markets for the publication’s global community. Reach her at [email protected] or 630-272-1774.

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