Recycling is Broken but Help is Coming!

July 31, 2019

Canadians use up to 57 million straws per day.

By Guy Crittenden

An article from change agent and circular economy expert Leyla Acaroglu critiques the consequences of our society's decision decades ago to emphasize recycling over reduction and reuse, which are higher in the famous 3Rs hierarchy. The article conveys crucial information in a lively, non-technical manner that everyone (and I do mean every single person) needs to understand. Acaroglu examines why the emphasis on recycling was wrong-headed, mentions some of the commercial agendas behind that, and what needs to change in order for our distribution and consumption of goods to be sustainable.

The article, which is also available here on Medium, resonated with me profoundly because I made these same points over and over during the quarter century I edited business publication Solid Waste & Recycling (which I co-founded in the early 1990s). My editorial position — that recycling is a useful tool in the waste management toolbox, but not one that should elbow out reduction and reuse — was not popular with some of my readers back then, especially those who directly benefited from the bonanza of new municipal recycling programs in the 1990s and beyond. Municipal recycling coordinators and representatives from industries such as the soft drink companies and large consumer firms like Proctor & Gamble sometimes shot me disapproving glances at industry gatherings, and it likely sometimes cost my magazine ad revenues.

"Canadians consume up to 57 million plastic straws per day."

In 1997 I wrote a freelance article for a policy magazine called The Next City entitled "The Blue Box Conspiracy" which was edited by Energy Probe's Executive Director Lawrence Solomon. It became quite famous in waste policy circles, and I stand by the thrust of the article, although it needs updating. (I plan to re-write and release the article here and on my own blog site soon.) It takes readers on a whirlwind tour of how and why the major soft drink producers gamed the legal system with cynical but clever statecraft to undo and dismantle yesteryear's industry-led deposit-refund system of glass bottle refilling, and replace it with a polluting throwaway system of metal cans and plastic beverage containers. (They then jumped on recycling as a tool to put a positive spin on their discarded containers, while dumping most of the costs of collection and recycling on municipal taxpayers. They literally saved themselves billions of dollars.) Researching that article revealed to me how large corporations coerce governments at all levels to obtain useful regulatory instruments that benefit their bottom line at the expense of the public interest and also that of the environment. (This practice is out of control in many other sectors of the economy.) Simply put, "externalities" are not included in the pricing of goods, and show up in mis-pricing and the misallocation of natural resources.

My cover story article for Solid Waste & Recycling magazine appeared in the Summer 2019 edition and explains the ramifications of Canada's proposed ban on single-use plastics, modelled on a similar Directive from the European Union.

Externalities have shown up in the natural environment (e.g., as Acaroglu notes in her article as plastics in our oceans, and micro-plastics in 90 per cent of table salt) from the decision years ago of producers and brand owners to shift to convenience packaging. At the consumer end of things, people like you and I notice egregious practices such as those of coffee shop chains like Starbucks that hand you black plastic cutlery that's itself wrapped in clear plastic film for your bun or bagel, and those annoying little plastic containers for butter with the peel-back film lids. (I spoke with my local Starbucks Manager Katie Morris who assured me the quick-service chain is making changes, including replacement of plastic straws in early August.) The coffee shop and fast-food industry are a prime target of new legislation proposed to move us toward a circular economy, as it's saturated with single-use plastic and other wasteful material usage. Beyond the aforementioned plastic cutlery, customers are served beverages in clear or opaque plastic cups, or paper coffee cups that most people don't realize are lined with a plastic coating. (In addition to it being better for the environment, another reason I always use my refillable metal or ceramic coffee cup for takeout is that at least some of that plastic lining dissolves into the liquid, and from there enters my body, which is very concerning. (The same is true of the plastic coating in soda pop cans. This is also why I never buy acidic materials like tomato sauce in a can. And you thought your government protects you?)

I was very pleased to encounter Leyla Acaroglu's article and see that ideas my colleagues and I promoted decades ago are finally (albeit slowly) entering the mainstream. It' s unfortunate that it required the imminent collapse of the planet's ecosystems for this awakening to occur, but hopefully the impending shifts will occur in time to avert disaster. In addition to making lifestyle shifts of my own, I decided a while ago to re-enter the industry in a new role, as a communications consultant specializing in sustainability and circular economy issues. In order to help shift policy and practice and to promote my new venture — Crittenden Communication — I wrote a fairly comprehensive article entitled "Singled Out: Canada saying goodbye to bags, bottles and straws" that's the cover story for the Summer 2019 of Solid Waste & Recycling (the magazine I co-founded in the early 1990s). You can read the article by browsing the convenient digital version of the magazine that's available here.

"Nestlé has over 100 water bottling plants in 34 countries each of which is capable of producing 1,200 plastic bottles per minute!"

It was divine timing that just as I decided to launch my consulting firm the Canadian government announced a proposed national ban on single-use plastics, which is the theme of the trade magazine article. Canada's proposed ban is modelled on a recent European Union Directive that's currently being implemented by EU member countries. It's a big topic, and one that I'll return to again again in the months and years ahead. The gist that folks need to understand is that something called "extended producer responsibility" (EPR) is finally getting uptake among policymakers around the world, and is arriving on Canada's shores. (It's worth noting British Columbia has been implementing it for years for different applications).

Some of my old industry colleagues and regular magazine contributors are at the vanguard of these developments. For instance, Clarissa Morawski (who lives in Barcelona, Spain these days) maintains her Canadian company CM Consulting but is now also managing director of Reloop — a cutting-edge consulting firm that's playing a significant role in helping the EU government in Brussels design such things as its recent single-use plastics ban. She also played a role in helping the US offices of another consulting firm, Eunomia Research and Consulting, develop a landmark report entitled Better Together: How a Deposit Return System Will Complement Ontario’s Blue Box Program and Enhance the Circular Economy. that you can access here. This report is important for a host of reasons, not the least being that finally the case has been argued irrefutably that a deposit-refund system for used beverage containers for soft drinks (as already exists for wine, beer and alcohol in Ontario, and as exists for non-alcohol containers in every other Canadian province but one) is the best choice for the environment and is compatible with a redesigned municipal curbside recycling system. (Ontario was the first jurisdiction in North America to introduce the famous "blue box.") Deposit-refund for used beverage containers, the study notes, would be a boon to employment and the environment alike, while saving the system millions of dollars overall. What's not to like?

Another colleague and regular magazine contributor I caught up with for the article is also one of North America's top experts in reuse policy, "design for environment" (DfE), and EPR: Usman Valiente, a senior policy analyst with Cardwell  Grove.

Valiante authored a timely report for the Ottawa-based Prosperity Institute entitled A Vision for a Circular Economy for The Benefits of Plastics Without the Waste and How We Get It Right, released in February of this year. The report sets out an all-encompassing and practical plan for accomplishing the Canadian government’s plastic ban objectives. Policymakers would be well served reading this report, and even ordinary citizens should read the executive summary (as well as that of the aforementioned report from Eumonia) to understand what's unfolding. Practical steps to overcoming the challenges to implementing EPR for plastics are clearly articulated in these reports.

Terracycle is piloting a new packaging program called "Loop."
Reusable metal containers will be delivered and picked up
from consumer households like the milkman delivery
system of yesteryear.

Speaking of "ordinary citizens," consumers are about to be treated to a plethora of innovative packaging and distribution systems for goods, in anticipation of the single-use plastics ban, in large part because the problem is so vast. I was astonished when researching the article to learn the extent to which our seemingly innocuous individual actions contribute to what environmentalists and economists call "cumulative effects." One of several statistics that blew me away me in this regard is the fact that Canadians consumer up to 57 million plastic straws every day! In Canada, up to 15 billion plastic bags are used every year. Globally, Nestlé has over 100 water bottling plants in 34 countries each of which is capable of producing 1,200 plastic bottles per minute! Astonishing, no?

In response to the demand for change, I'lll just mention one example of the kind of innovation and creativity that the proposed regulation is already inspiring. Consumers will be intrigued, I expect, by an innovative packaging program that's reminiscent of the "milk man" delivery system from days gone by. Called "Loop," the program from industry leader Terracycle will see brand owners distribute everything from shampoo to cereal in sturdy reusable metal containers delivered to people's homes and picked up for washing and reuse. Loop could be the thin edge of the wedge for a plethora of such programs. Savvy consumer product companies realize such programs foster brand loyalty and other advantages, even though they're not part of the convenience packaging of the throwaway society these same companies foisted on the public over the past half-century. Retailers will get in on the act, too; in place of their former complaints that fulfilling deposit-refund systems take up valuable store space, industry leaders will recognize that return-to-retail gets customers back in their store, where they'll purchase more goods and services.

Exotic toucan sits on a branch.

Before I sign off, I'd like to leave readers with an opportunity to "give back" in a small but important way. I invite you to please consider making a donation to an organization on whose board I sit: the Amazon Rainforest Conservancy (ARC). This philanthropy, which offers charitable receipts to Canadians, acquires rights to large tracts of land in the Madre de Dios Region of Peru to establish sustainable practices such as Brazil nut concessions and to test best practices for growing artisanal cacao and other things. The location is especially important, as the area flooded with wildcat gold miners and loggers a few years ago after a major highway opened up that connects South America's Atlantic and Pacific coasts. ARC's lands are the only barrier between highly polluting camps (from the mercury used to precipitate gold from river silt) and uncontacted tribes. So take a moment and make a donation. Any amount is deeply appreciated. And note that I donate all royalties from my book to ARC (see byline below).


Guy Crittenden: 
Environment and business journalist and award-winning book author (The Year of Drinking Magic: Twelve Ceremonies with the Vine of Souls, Apocryphile Press) based in Innisfil, Ontario, Canada and Principal of Crittenden Communication. Contact Guy at