I am deeply troubled by Mr. Tierney’s one-dimensional view of the value of recycling. Landfill costs do not reflect the true cost of natural capital impacts. To use cost of landfilling as the benchmark to determine value of recycling is missing the point. Enlightened industry sectors in the U.S. have started to embrace circular economy concepts. The increased interest is driven by the recognition that we cannot continue our linear approach to taking, making and wasting our resources. Our current economic system does not have a way to account for the natural and social capital that it needs as inputs to keep functioning profitably.
Mr. Tierney argues that “For centuries, the real cost of labor has been increasing while the real cost of raw materials has been declining.” Many materials are in increasingly short supply and commodities are not continuing to behave the way they have in the past. According to the World Bank, commodity prices have historically been inversely related to growth. This relationship changed in 2000 when resource prices that had been declining since 1900 started to increase rapidly.1 Massive linear overconsumption is not sustainable. The circular economy supports keeping materials in circulation for their highest and best use. It is a system that is restorative or regenerative by design.
Our current recycling infrastructure is under-supported. As a society we have recognized the importance of recycling materials but we have not committed to the cost of building an infrastructure that will allow us to keep the materials clean and separate for their highest and best use. We need to work to increase consumer participation, use technology to create the appropriate infrastructure and develop markets for the materials we collect. The private and public sector must work together to develop the best solutions.
The good news is that the recycling industry is the center of attention for innovation relating to the changing mix of materials that are being recycled.
Work is underway to develop markets for many types of rigid plastics and to test new technologies for collecting and sorting flexible films.
To bury our heads along with valuable materials just doesn’t make sense.
The Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC) is a project of GreenBlue, a nonprofit dedicated to the sustainable use of materials in society. The SPC is a membership-based group that brings together business, educational institutions, and government agencies to collectively broaden the understanding of packaging sustainability and develop meaningful improvements for packaging solutions.