How can we guarantee the continued benefits of recycling during all economic and commercial conditions?
The overwhelming opinion of general industry is for voluntary programs. The thought of expanded government participation and mandated legislation is enough to cause an allergic reaction within industry's ranks.
That said, it would seem that voluntary use of recycled content in manufactured products would be standing operating procedure for all companies. All new packages introduced into commerce would be compatible with the current recycling stream. Sincere and proactive involvement by corporate America in this matter would be a loud announcement to all that no outside guidance or mandates are required.
Specifically, why is it that post-consumer resin holds no special standing in most manufacturers' feedstock inventory? In spite of the benefits recycling offers, post-consumer resin must compete head-to-head against wide-spec resin, post-industrial regrind, imported resins, and anything else a manufacturer can introduce into his system that will slash an extra penny per pound from the bottom line.
It is a hypocritical dichotomy that industry perpetuates upon itself. Manufacturers will openly admit that one of the main reasons they don't use post-consumer resin is because the consumer is not demanding it and the government is not obligating its use. But on the flip side, they whole-heartedly promote a voluntary system as the best and only alternative. Does anyone detect a slight problem here?
Is it possible for the recycling industry to realize some intrinsic value for post-consumer material based on the positive impact the industry has on society? How can we establish a basic quantifiable worth that goes beyond a mere price-per-pound assessment?
As recyclers we do not stand apart from industry and manufacturing, we belong to it. If our colleagues earnestly believe that a voluntary recycling system will best serve the effort, then we should definitely and enthusiastically support that philosophy. But if this rhetoric is just sound-good propaganda to get the government and environmentalists off their backs, then recyclers may need to take a step back and re-evaluate the logic.
It is neither accurate nor fair to label all manufacturers as uncommitted bystanders in the recycling movement. Some have indeed made an identifiable commitment to support the effort. These standout companies directly communicate with recyclers to inquire how they can best integrate recycled content into their products, or about the potential consequences their plans may have on the recycling stream. These forward-thinking companies should be applauded and emulated.
It is clear that the recycling industry must be viable during all economic periods in order to prosper. Accordingly, we cannot be satisfied with the mind-set that the industry will thrive as long as the plastic is recycled into just any application. This philosophy stunts the growth of recycling technology and the possibilities to integrate into high-end and more diverse markets.
For example, post-consumer resin in direct-contact food packaging is still in the embryonic stage in this country, but the future looks promising. Some concessions must be acknowledged for food packagers, however. Food and Drug Administration restrictions and flavor considerations impact their decision process beyond the economic and aesthetic considerations of nonfood packagers. Regardless, many in the recycling industry are prepared to tackle these concerns. All potential applications must be explored and promoted. No one application or industry should be blessed or burdened with the responsibility of supporting the recycling movement.
Whether industry acknowledges it or not, our country has embraced the recycling movement. The support is being developed in our schools, where the average 8-year-old knows more about recycling than most adults. There must be some way for industry to acknowledge this phenomenon on a much grander scale.
The plastics recycling infrastructure needs more attention — not necessarily to promote one methodology over another, but to advance industry's enthusiasm for the contribution recycled plastics can make to its business and the environment. Recycling's growth potential is enormous, the indispensable support of that potential from industry has yet to be confirmed.
Navedo has worked in the environmental and plastics recycling industry for more than 10 years. He holds a law degree, with a concentration in environmental law.