Down the Rabbit Hole: An International Tour of Packaging Recycling Systems

Lately I have been feeling like a character in one of the children’s novels I have loved and reread numerous times over the years. Maybe it’s Alice in Wonderland, The Phantom Tollbooth, or perhaps Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? The central plot of these books features an average person transported to a fantasy world for a series of adventures each more fantastic, silly, puzzling, absurd, or amazing than the next. Oh, and of course the main character always learns important lessons along the way.

After almost four years of research and writing about what happens to packaging when we consumers are done using it, I have traveled the world and encountered packaging recovery systems of all shapes, sizes, flavors, and textures. The result of all this travel is my report, Closing the Loop: Road Map for Effective Material Value Recovery, a detailed analysis of international packaging recovery systems with lessons of what we can learn for the anemic US system.

Luckily for me, my adventures and the people I encountered were rarely puzzling, absurd, or silly. Instead, I discovered that there are as many effective ways to deal with packaging waste as there are groups who want to recover it. The trick is how to learn from the best ones and avoid some of the pitfalls experienced by the others.

Some of the most fantastic and amazing things I saw:

  • The Belgian household packaging recovery system run by Fost Plus is stunning in its simplicity, common sense practicality, and effectiveness.
  • Recycling drop-off centers where Swiss citizens routinely bring everything recyclable from their homes, including their mattresses, batteries, and even used Nespresso coffee capsules, and sort them into specific bins.
  • A state of the art material recovery facility in Oppin, Germany, where fourteen different optical sorters in a row made hand-sorting of recyclables a thing of the distant past.
  • A waste-to-energy facility in the middle of Vienna, Austria, accepted by Viennese citizens and now a tourist landmark because of its beautiful architecture.
  • Vertically integrated companies in Australia with a built-in “design for recycling” feedback loop: they make packaging, collect the recycling, and reprocess collected materials back into new packaging.
  • A new design for on-the-go recycling bins in Toronto, Ontario, that accept trash, cigarette butts, and recyclables, while providing an easy-to-use foot pedal allowing grime and germ-conscious citizens to recycle without soiling their hands.

A few of the most puzzling (dare I say silly?) things I saw:

  • South Australian tractor-trailer trucks transporting loads of counted, brand-sorted, uncrushed, empty (and therefore lightweight) beverage containers from collection depots to super-collectors, to be re-counted once again.
  • In the space of two blocks on the same street in the London Borough of Camden, four different types of on-the-go recycling bins, each of a different size and shape, collecting different combinations of packaging materials, with different labels.
  • Workers in Australia hand-sorting recyclables from household trash and organics in the tipping hall of a facility in a constant spray of mist, used to keep down the dust.

Without a doubt, the best part of this whole adventure was the opportunity to meet dedicated and passionate people working in all of these countries who make sure packaging materials are recovered for a beneficial purpose at end-of-life. My hosts were energetic, knowledgeable, curious, patient, and generous with their time. Despite the variety of methods they use to operate their state or country’s material recovery system, all of them have helped to set and achieve ambitious recycling and recovery goals. When it comes time to measure impact, there is no question that they do a far better job of recovering materials than the typical US system, which, like Milo in The Phantom Tollbooth, appears stuck in the doldrums and in dire need of rescue by the Armies of Wisdom.

The main lesson I learned is that there is a veritable candy store of ways to run a material recovery system, one that will suit every country. Not everyone will love Wonka’s “Whipplescrumptious Fudgemallow Delight”—some may prefer an everlasting gobstopper or some three-course chewing gum. But there is definitely no need for the US to start from scratch in figuring out how to improve our society’s use of valuable materials. Of course, not all of the ideas I encountered will work in the US. However, there are too many good options in existence that can be adapted to the US experience that we ignore them at our own peril, and that of our pocketbooks, material resources, and environment.


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