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5 Lessons In Plastic From Waste Dive

by Cole Rosengren
January 26, 2019

Waste Dive's mission is to provide independent and insightful coverage of the waste and recycling industry, primarily focused on the U.S. market. The rise of plastic packaging, and the challenges it presents to collect and recycle, is one of the most complex issues we encounter on a regular basis. It's emotional, technical and often intractable. Here are a few examples of what we've learned along the way:

1 | Recycling is big business.

The ecosystem of packaging manufacturers, recycling companies, policymakers and other groups is vast. Without a coherent national recycling policy it can often be hard to find unbiased perspectives or assessments when it comes to charting a path forward amid global trade disruptions. Last year, the EPA attempted to bring some clarity to the current moment with a summit on America Recycles Day. Few publications were in attendance, and fewer still knew what to make of the multi-hour event. After a lot of thinking, and re-watching the tape, we delivered this account of why it has been – and will likely continue to be – so hard to find common ground.

2 | Recycling is political.

Because of this decentralized policy structure, most recycling decisions get made at the local government level. Except when they don't. As we've been tracking in New York for years now, the city's hard-fought attempts at a plastic bag ban were overruled by the state legislature in 2017. From there, the governor delayed the discussion with an inconclusive report, sat on the issue some more, revived it when he had a primary challenge and has now brought it up once again. Meanwhile, New York's Department of Sanitation has been handing out free reusable bags and trying to push the message voluntarily at the local level. We'll watch with interest where it all goes from there.

3 | Recycling is hyperlocal.

As noted, most decisions about what you can or can't put in the bin get made at the county or municipal level. While some states play a large role in policy requirements, many don't and expertise often comes from the private companies that are contracted to collect or process recyclables. In the wake of market upheavals over the past year-and-a-half, certain types of "mixed plastics" have become an easy target to cut from programs due to their low value. In other cases, the cost to recycle has gone up to maintain the same access for consumers. We've been tracking these changes across all 50 states on a regular basis since Nov. 2017.

4 | Recycling is personal.

Straw bans are all the rage right now – perhaps to the detriment of larger structural changes depending on whom you ask – so we were intrigued by new research from the University of Southern Maine about how this fits into consumer psychology. Professor Travis Wagner explained why these policies might be a "gateway" to broader waste reduction measures for some people and what he'd learned from studying 133 restaurants in one post-ban California city. 

5 | Recycling is wonky.

Plastic has been getting even more attention in the UK than the U.S. recently and we're fortunate to have had contributor Maxine Perella help break it all down. After one piece on the ways the UK is handling plastics amid lower commodity prices, she took a close look at how Scotland's unique carbon metric reporting system gets beyond the "highly emotive issue" of plastic to tackle why might be even more effective holistic policies.