‘The new normal’. ‘Unprecedented’. Last year, those words were synonymous with Covid-19. This year, we have the rare opportunity to give those words new life. We have the chance to take what the pandemic destroyed and build it back in a more sustainable way. A way that benefits us, and the environment.
Enter green recovery. Green recovery is about switching to more circular strategies, with the intention of changing our current trajectory and transforming our future. In this blog post, we’ll look at four circular strategies that deal with waste. Four strategies that could help lead green recovery. But first.
A Quick Look at the Plastic Problem, Right Now
Covid-19 has had a huge impact on us, but something we didn’t predict is the effect it’s had on the environment. Of course, we had a plastic problem before Covid-19. In fact, plastic pollution was set to increase twofold by 2030. But with the rise in demand and use of disposable PPE (masks, gloves etc.), that prediction may change. For the worse.
Despite health experts emphasizing the safety of reusable PPE, we still use 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves every month. Every month. At best, that number will hold for the foreseeable future, but more likely, we’ll see it go up.
PPE aside, we’re also spending more time at home. That means more online shopping and ordering takeout. These two factors alone have also led to increased plastic packaging and containers, and where does most of that extra plastic go? You guessed it.
But. This blog post isn’t about problems. It’s about solutions, and there has never been a better time to create those solutions and put them into practice.
Let’s Talk Green Recovery
Green recovery strategies benefit people and planet. We’ll get to four of those in a moment, but first, some hopeful news. The EU Council’s Environment Working Party has put forth draft Council conclusions on how to make ‘the EU’s post-Covid-19 economic recovery circular and green’. According to Agence Europe, the draft conclusions contain the new Circular Economy Action Plan, and highlights the importance of preventing resource depletion and improving waste management. It also mentions waste hierarchy application, and the establishment of an efficient single market for non-toxic products and robust secondary materials. So, it’s looking promising. But in the meantime.
There is So Much Opportunity for Green Recovery in the Waste Sector. Here are Four
1. Design to last
Most products aren’t designed for durability. Think about your smartphone. It’s designed to meet your needs while you have it, but once it starts showing signs of age, it isn’t all that easy to disassemble for repair, or upgrade. So, you get a new phone. If that first phone was designed in a circular way, it would last longer, and be repairable and recyclable. You see, the choices we make at the design stage of a product matter. Those decisions directly affect how a product is used and disposed of.
Let’s look at clothes. Clothing represents more than 60% of the total textiles used. If we extend the life of each item of clothing by an extra nine months, we can reduce carbon, water, and waste by around 4-10% each. So how can we extend the lifecycle of clothes?
We can design them to last longer. That means we must analyze the problems (why do clothes fall apart?), look for solutions, and implement them at design stage. Take New Look, a popular British global fashion retailer. They found that consumers were returning womenswear stretch jeans at an above average rate. When they looked a little closer, they found that it was because the buttons weren’t attached properly. This led to rounds of testing to come up with a solution to the problem. ASOS, another popular British online fashion retailer, also identified a problem (clothing hems were falling after wear or wash). So, they developed a bonding seal that would make their clothing more durable.
You’ve probably heard all the statistics about how detrimental the fashion industry is to the environment and our efforts to go circular. Wherever those numbers stand today, they could, and should, be lower. If we apply circular principles to design and production, we can reduce the environmental impact of clothes (CO2 emissions, water and energy consumption, and reliance on raw materials) and reduce their operational and production costs. The possibilities (and benefits) are infinite and far-reaching.
We know reuse is crucial in creating a circular economy. Right now, the possibilities for brands to blaze a trail with innovative solutions has never been greater. At the moment, there are four models that help reduce the need for single-use packaging. Refill at home, refill on the go, return from home, and return on the go. Each offers a simple way for us to keep plastic in the loop, where it belongs.
PepsiCo’s Soda Stream is a great example of how well refill options can work. The concept is simple. A consumer buys an appliance that lets them make their own sparkling water, in reusable bottles, at home. This is great for so many reasons, including the fact that when the CO2 eventually runs out, consumers can buy more, and get rewarded for it. You see, the CO2 comes in returnable cylinders, and when consumers return their empties in store, they get a discount on their next purchase. This financial incentive will go a long way in helping PepsiCo achieve their goal of eliminating 67 billion plastic beverage bottles by 2025.
There are so many examples of successful reuse models. Which one have you used recently? We’d love to hear about your experience.
3. Collecting and Recycling
Recycling technology today makes plastics (and other materials) easier to recycle than ever before.
Let’s take a quick look at that technology. Particularly sensor-based sorting. TOMRA Recycling is a pioneer in this department (they developed the very first high-volume NIR sensor for global waste sorting applications). Their highly automated system uses artificial intelligence (AI) so that machines can learn from data generated by software apps to recognize and sort materials (allowing them to make sorting decisions).
The system works by scanning and identifying different pieces of waste quickly and accurately, recovering materials from different waste streams (single stream, packaging, paper and household waste), and ejecting unwanted materials. Not only does sensor-based sorting increase revenue (because of the increased recovery rate and the consistent quality of what is recovered), but it also costs less (thanks to reduced labor, operational, and space requirements). It’s a win on all sides.
TOMRA has also taken their technology a step further and developed, together with Stadler, the world’s very first fully automated textile sorting plant in Sweden. But that’s another blog post for another time. Watch this space.
Now, just like we need recycling systems, we need collections systems equally as much. Systems that get plastic back into the closed loop. Let’s look Deposit Return Schemes (DRS). How they work is simple. A small amount is added to the price of a beverage. That amount is then refunded to the consumer when they bring the empty beverage container back for recycling. This system offers a financial and convenience incentive for consumers to recycle.
Right now, there are eight EU nations making use of DRS, and that number is set to rise.
'In Lithuania, TOMRA’s reverse vending machines, which enable the automated collection of beverage containers, saw collection recycling rates go from 34 % in 2016 to 92% within two years.'
The benefits of recycling cannot be overstated: Efficient use of primary resources, fewer landfills, less pollution and littering, and more economic strength and security.
4. Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR)
EPR schemes encourage producers to take full responsibility for the products they create, and can influence businesses practices (from design to disposal) in a big way. Now, while EPR schemes benefit the environment and the economy, they’re a gamechanger for producers too. How? Enhanced reputation and decreased environmental impact aside, EPR schemes can reduce the operational and production costs of the product being made. Which takes us back to our first strategy, design to last. If producers find more durable packaging, or packaging that can be reused or recycled (with the help of an EPR scheme), it means reduced costs all round. It just makes good business sense.
Many companies (including Nestle Philippines), governments, and even emerging markets are showing their support for mandatory EPR schemes, so we should see more development and implementation coming soon.
One Day, or Day One?
It’s up to us. While the pandemic wreaked havoc on pretty much everything, it also opened a door. We now have the rare opportunity to make a strong contribution towards creating a circular economy. We have an opportunity to do things differently. Let’s turn ‘unprecedented’ and ‘new normal’ into words we use to describe green recovery.
What do you think waste management will look like in years to come? Are you hopeful, or skeptical? Tell us below!