In the past 50 years, measuring the sustainability of plastic packaging has been centralized on recyclability. This multi-billion-dollar effort has resulted in less than 10% of plastics being recovered and recycled. As the field of sustainability is maturing, the approach is evolving to a more holistic approach that considers the environmental impact of the product throughout its entire life-cycle. An encompassing approach is critical in making sound decisions that have impact, however not everyone is on board and some that represent the recycling industry are in a downright panic.
In a recent interview discussing sustainability of plastics, Steve Alexander, executive director of APR, states; “Frankly, there is no sustainability without recycling.”. Steve pointed to brand owners making recycling-related commitments and expressed concern that there may be less importance placed on recycling as other sustainability factors are considered. Alexander emphasized that he wants “companies and consumer brands to continue their commitment to utilizing recycling.”
While I understand that Alexander’s job and the entire APR organization’s existence is completely dependent on the continued focus on recycling as the primary directive of sustainability, it is disheartening to see such a blatant disregard for achieving more sustainable communities. The hard-line approach by APR that recycling is the basis of sustainability demonstrates the complete refusal to accept the complex nature of sustainability and the science and data behind sustainable materials management.
Sustainable Materials Management (SMM) is an approach that evaluates a product across the entire life-cycle; sourcing, manufacturing, use and discard. SMM has provided alarming insight to many traditional approaches that while appeared beneficial were in fact environmentally detrimental. It is this reason that the EPA, waste companies and many brands are shifting from the archaic simplistic approach of simply recycling to the encompassing approach of SMM that utilizes science and data to drive true environmentally sustainable approaches.
Contrary to what Alexander and APR may promote, from a full life-cycle analysis approach, recycling is not synonymous with sustainability. In most instances, converting from recyclable rigid packaging into non-recyclable multi-layer flexible packaging is the optimal solution. There are some specific instances where using recyclable packaging is more beneficial, but this is not the majority.
As sustainability leaders, each of us must be willing to question traditional approaches and adopt methods that provide measurable results which are validated with data to provide environmental value. We must follow the science and data to create a sustainable future. And, we must at times make difficult decisions and admit when we have taken the wrong approach – even when it doesn’t benefit our pocketbook.
It borderlines dangerous and irresponsible to push solutions simply because consumers feel they are sustainable when in fact they have a significant negative environmental and financial impact to the environment and our communities.
The question I have for Alexander and APR is:
“Are you an advocate for sustainability or for your personal interests?”
Your actions and statements seem to provide a clear answer.
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