Zero Waste: Recycling Headwinds for 2019

The end-of-year forecasting is a pointless exercise for a number of reasons. There is no real need for predictions beyond those related to world of finance and even in that domain, the act is only as good as the predictors ability to consume the chaos of the previous year and from that jumble, without Nostradamus’ so-called divine intervention, give some insight into the coming year. As I suggested, it is pointless.

Doing so for the world of recycling, or sustainability if you prefer, is much easier. The future is uniquely forecasted in the past. This does not reflect on the amazing innovation in the zero waste space that might occur in the upcoming year or already has or the enthusiasm to reduce, recycle, reuse and reinvent that still seems to be growing. That will all continue unabated and if we are incredibly fortunate, new advocates for a better world will be recruited into the fight. Predicting in this space is more illustrative of where we have come, where we should be and how far from that place we still are.

Oil in 2019

The average consumer consumes any news about oil prices as either: lower so it will cost them much less to fuel their car(s) and go about their daily business or higher as it will cost more to do the same repetitive activities. The price of oil does not necessarily change any real life dynamic. They cheer lower prices and bemoan higher prices but nothing really changes in the way we use this product.

And we are currently in a low-price environment. And this makes looking forward at the world of recycling (sustainability, zero waste, etc.) much easier. Here’s why:

Plastics

Plastics changed the world, perhaps much more so than any invention on the last 100 years. It has, as Andreas de Vries, a strategy consultant for the oil and gas industry and writing in September for oilprice.com explained about plastic’s influence on our daily lives, it has: “largely replaced more traditional materials such as wood, cotton, wool, paper, metal, ceramic, leather and glass, because they are substantially cheaper to produce and easier to handle. They have effectively enabled economic globalization, by lowering the cost of cross-border transport; as well as the consumerist lifestyle, by greatly increasing the range of goods available to consumers at affordable prices.”

Plastic created unprecedented convenience and very favorable costs. And while only 4% of the oil consumption is dedicated to plastic production and even though plastic production has had a steady 8.6% increase year over year since 1950, the vast majority is still used in packaging. What does not correlate with that year-over-year growth is the material’s recovery. We have barely recycled 9% of what we have produced.

Because this is a prediction post, it is relatively safe to project no real change in 2019. As long as oil is cheap, using virgin material will remain less expensive. However dire this outlook for this material may seem, there is a way to fix the issue. A very simple way.

Organics

The estimates about how much potentially recyclable organics ends up in the landfill vary widely from 20 to over 60% of what could be recovered actually is. From a consumer standpoint, the effort has been embraced by many local communities and although they do not fully capture all of the food waste they produce, those that do tend to fully participate if their local marketplace engages the effort.

While consumers can be forgiven for the erroneous thinking that once compostable items reach the landfill, the environment will do the rest to degrade their refuse. Not following the local efforts actually creates other issues such as methane.

Unfortunately, it is not the consumer who is at fault. It is instead, the retailer who sells them their food. Lower oil prices will help this industry achieve what once may have bee too cost-prohibitive to do. But will they do this in 2019?

The key ingredient in organic recovery is to use reverse logistics. This concept, a key component to the circular economy model is built upon the notion that trucks, while necessary to deliver materials to stores can also be better utilized to return materials to the same distribution centers for further recycling. (As a disclaimer, I am working with a company – Alternative Organics – that has perfected the methodology with better science, increased convenience and cost.)

However, big company participation in businesses where this is possible (where the company controls their own supply chain) the actual organic recovery they do achieve is far less that the consumer average. While they may have a cobbled-together network of local haulers with a variety of outcomes (and often recovery restrictions), these retailers are underperforming in this area. This is also a simple fix.

What Needs to Change the Headwinds to Tailwinds

You will have probably noticed that I offer pronounced criticism of business leadership. I offer no apologies for my stance that the process of creating a sustainable environment is currently not much more than lip service at far too many companies. The folks tasked with waste removal are not often the same person(s) responsible for sustainability and neither of those person(s) authorizes the spending (which would actually be a savings if correctly portrayed) any effort that might move the needle.

While all of the companies selling the products below have published some sort of sustainability document (seemingly for shareholder consumption), all are vague enough to suggest that at some point in the future, they will reach what are non-specific goals. One document from a major retailer mentioned plastic only twice. Only leadership can right this wrong.

The Solution

The leadership I call out is often old enough to be from the segment of the population that became “environmentally aware” as Boomers. Some are Millennials who belong to the generation following that group is often considered to be “environmentally concerned”. And still fewer are Generations Y and Z, a group that will live with these sins, do their best to innovate and eradicate. And while throwing blame about is easy, it is Boomer leadership that is generally at fault.

This group can create an aggregate of all generations and accomplish five things to change this process in 2019 – and they are incredibly simple changes.

  1. Insist your suppliers embrace a packaging that includes up to 20% post consumer recyclables. In an oil-cheap world, the only change to this ongoing environmental disaster will come with your commitment to this change. It will foster further innovation and those innovations will drive down costs. Even if cheap oil continues to make the wrong choice more economically viable.
  2. Stop thinking of new ways to make things more convenient (see the photos from a sampling of grocery stores near you). In those pictures, retailers have clearly listened to their suppliers and not to their zero waste commitments. If you chose to continue this practice of over-packaging for the sake of consumer safety and product longevity, the least leadership could do is educate their consumers to buy from companies who, own their, without a gentle push from your sustainability documents, have stepped up to do the right thing.
  3. Become a central hub for recycling. As soon as you entertain that idea, a company will begin to understand how much they are contributing to the problem. Suppose you were told by the community that you should? Getting ahead of the trash – and the recycling – your business creates will be much more than monetarily profitable.
  4. Engage your logistics team in coordination with your facilities team to enlist your operations team to insist your merchandising team to embrace a circular economic logic. This is especially easy when it comes to organics, more complicated but not insurmountable for other materials (plastic film and hard polymers) and as easy as leading these often disparate internal groups to achieve efficiencies that may not be obvious.
  5. Talk to the people who work for you. They are already mentally where your company should be physically and they want nothing more than to have you follow their lead.

The new year will bring some interesting challenges because oil will continue to be cheap. Right now, drillers are looking for historically low profits from the wells they tap because they have tapped too many. Surpluses will continue to make this a cheap commodity throughout 2019.

So if I were to offer a #BigIdeas2019 with a focus on #zerowaste, it might be as simple as:

  • logistical manipulation of markets on a micro scale where businesses coalesce around the idea and support the costs as a group rather than as an individual company;
  • engaging existing agencies at a governmental level to simplify their timelines so business could know the consequences of waiting for someone else to lead instead of making adjustments to accommodate delays;
  • find a leader who wants to lead their business off the field of ignorance that they seem to be statistically shackled to for too long;
  • let me help. I specialize in building the linguistic bridge between groups within your business. We could at least start the conversation.

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