As we enter the third decade of the millennium we must understand that global waste generation is one of the most pressing issues of our time—an inevitable by-product of capitalist and consumerist growth. A crisis that is not going away and is getting worse each year.
That’s not to say that changes aren’t being made, but there’s still a long way to go, and arguably, to-date, the recycling industry could be seen as more 19th century than 21st.
So, how will recycling develop over the third decade of the 21st century? And what lies beyond? Pulled from our 2020 State of Recycling Report, here we dive into some key factors that are set to drive the future of recycling in America.
Consumers have the power to make change
For real change designed to boost the future of recycling, businesses must move away from their reliance on petroleum-based materials while adopting more sustainable alternatives and ensuring product life is extended. Petroleum-based plastics are among the biggest offenders in terms of waste-based pollution, with many plastic materials being completely unrecyclable and taking thousands of years to breakdown in the environment.
Consumers must become the driving force behind wholesale changes in both the types of materials we choose to consume and the way in which we use them. The popular move away from single-use water bottles is a good example of how people-power can make changes further upstream, however, so too is the new Right to Repair movement that is gaining traction in various countries.
Over the next decade, as sustainability education increasingly becomes part of the fabric of society, consumers will demand clearer labeling on products, alternative packaging solutions, simple and cost-efficient repairs on devices and equipment, and a wholesale move away from plastics across all industries.
A true circular economy
Popularity has risen around the concept of the circular economy, and small steps are now being taken to put it into practice. The future of recycling is set for a surge in circular products as manufacturers and recycling initiatives work together and reach a critical mass. Once achieved, circular products will become the norm, with 100% closed-loop recycling systems ensuring that recycled materials are used within products that are of equal value to the original. See three innovative schemes transforming our disposal culture.
Additionally, with the help of both new and existing technology, recycling centers will be able to more easily sort and separate items. An educated public, that also efficiently separates items, will help recycling waste streams become less contaminated and provide more opportunities to be recycled.
Waste is only waste because we do not value it. When considering the future of recycling, evaluating the worth of products at all stages of the chain — from production through consumption to disposal — is crucial to ensuring that we take stock of our careless use of finite resources. Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) is one attempt to ensure this happens, and over the next decade, its reach will extend and boost the recycling industry in a number of ways.
One element of EPR will encapsulate all of the environmental costs of a particular product, and while it has been around in some form since the 1990’s, the future of the recycling industry will increasingly depend on this new approach in the way we value our waste. Demanufacturing will become integral to this process, essentially keeping products, materials, and resources in circulation for increasingly longer periods by ensuring they can be disassembled or recycled at the end of the chain.
Put simply, through robust EPR legislation from government and continued consumer pressure, future product prices will include a value or tax on potential environmental impact. This will incentivize manufacturers to use more sustainable products, operate efficient reuse and repair programs, and ensure recycling is quicker, more efficient, and cheaper.
Tech and transparency go hand in hand
Existing technologies are making waves across the recycling industry. Radiofrequency identification (RFID) and other tracking technologies are providing increased transparency during both production and subsequent disposal, allowing the entire lifecycle of products to be tracked and recorded. Over the next decade, recycling initiatives will dictate that an increasing number of products become part of these programs, allowing detailed metrics to be identified across a huge range of data points.
Technologies related to the future of recycling will also be developed in material sensors that aim to bring increased efficiency to facilities on both commercial and consumer scales. Ensuring waste streams are “pure” is among one of the key challenges facing effective recycling, and the growth of mass-produced material sensors will boost separation efficiencies in the home and within recycling facilities.
Conclusion – Less consumption, more conservation
The future of the recycling industry lies very much in a reduction of the number of different materials being processed together and an increase in the purity of raw materials produced by the recycling process. Standardization of materials across products is one element of this future vision, underpinned by conservation rather than consumption, effectively reducing and redefining what we call waste.
Other efficiencies in collection and distribution are also likely to bring the cost of recycling down and further boost the industry over the next decade. On-demand collections, in tandem with comprehensive curbside collections across the US, will be made more efficient through technology, connecting all stages of the chain through centralized apps and portals.
For example, New York’s curbside recycling program is among the most comprehensive in the US, and as it strives to meet its lofty goal of zero waste by 2030, there are constant drives to increase efficiencies in collection and distribution of recyclables. Denver is helping to educate its residents on recycling through a range of pilot routes designed to increase the types of materials residents can add to their recycling carts. Initiatives such as these will ensure the next decade will bring a renewed emphasis on waste reduction.
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