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Which side of the recycling debate are you on?

Which side of the recycling debate are you on?
Is recycling more trouble than it's worth?

A recent article by John Tierney in The New York Times’ Oct. 4 Sunday Review, “The Reign of Recycling,” has been receiving a lot of mixed reactions across the board. The opinion piece calls recycling out as an inefficient, ineffective economic drain (save for a few select materials, like aluminum and paper).

Some see this analysis as an inaccurate, shortsighted thought framed with only a corporate, profit-driven lens; others see it as a truthful, realistic examination of the United States’ current recycling infrastructure.

As packaging professionals and sustainability-driven corporate entities, where should we stand in this debate?

At TerraCycle, I find myself in the center of this argument all the time. While we do work with major brands and manufacturers to create more circular solutions for their pre- and post-consumer packaging waste, I also view myself as an environmentalist. As an environmentalist, I believe that we should be seeking to maximize the recyclability of all packaging formats. We have to ask ourselves: do we want to be the ones facilitating the generation of the non-recyclable waste clogging our landfills?

Perhaps the most eco-friendly solution, unsurprisingly, is to avoid packaging altogether. That said, we certainly understand the necessity for packaging in today’s product environment: it increases the ease of transportation, increases product longevity and reduces breakage—all important considerations that add not only to product health and safety, but sustainability itself (relatively speaking). Decreasing spoilage and increasing durability prevents products from dying prematurely, so creating high quality and durable packaging is important in many respects. However, this often necessitates packaging formats that are difficult to recycle.

Tierney would have you believe that this is an acceptable inevitability; recycle if it’s worth it, landfill or incinerate if it isn’t. I, however, believe that we should be holding ourselves to higher standards. I don’t think it’s unrealistic to say that we can create packaging mediums that fulfill the needs of our market, consumers and products, while still driving sustainability and recyclability in a profitable way. It’s been done before, and it’s being done far more frequently today.

We’ve been helping to facilitate this idea for years at TerraCycle, working with major manufacturers to help them develop actionable and effective recycling strategies for their pre- and post-consumer packaging waste—packaging waste that was previously considered non-recyclable across the board. For many of our partners, increasing the recyclability of their packaging is incredibly beneficial: it can increase supply chain security (by reusing recycled material in the supply line), it can reduce costs and it can attract environmentally conscious consumers to the brand.

As packaging professionals, we need to push for a balance between safety, quality, profitability and sustainability. There are countless packaging mediums that have helped facilitate incredible advances in these areas—just think of the improvements we would have forgone had we abandoned materials like flexible film years ago. Today, and thanks in part to the incredible ubiquity of flexible film, industry groups and corporate entities (including TerraCycle) are collaborating to develop recycling solutions for this incredibly useful material. Of course there is more work to be done, but clearly profitability and sustainability are not always mutually exclusive.

I agree with Tierney’s sentiment that our current recycling infrastructure needs improvement. We need more innovation, more standardization, extended producer responsibility legislation and greater accountability regarding the sustainability of our packaging. But to say that recycling should be abandoned because it is not ideal now is, in my opinion, a critical miscalculation. Complacency in this regard is dangerous, and we are already starting to see the environmental impacts come to fruition.

What do you think? Should we accept the current legacy of the packaging industry as an inevitability and resign packaging waste to landfills, or should we take responsibility by balancing our profit motives with the well-being of the planet?

Author Tom Szaky, founder and CEO of TerraCycle, has won more than 50 awards for entrepreneurship, also writes blogs for Treehugger and The New York Times, has an upcoming book called "Make Garbage Great" and is the star of a new television show on Pivot TV, “Human Resources” airing in August 2015.

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