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Recycling is hard. That’s why we have to eliminate single use packaging and not get distracted.

StackitNOW is a great idea but also demonstrates how intractable the problem is.

At the annual EcoFair at the Barns this weekend I spent some time wrapping my head around StackitNOW, a coffee cup recycling program created by Ian Chandler, who has a carbon neutral paper shredding company and now picks up coffee cups on the side. It seems to be a great initiative that actually does recycle coffee cups, and at the same time a demonstration of how difficult and intractable the problem is.

Coffee cups are hard to recycle in the municipal waste stream because the paper is coated with plastic and the lids often have to be separated. But they can be recycled if they are shredded; soak them in water and the plastic separates from the pulp. According to StackitNOW:

Coffee cups become waste within the coffee selling environment (easy to collect) but most walk out the door to become widely dispersed, ending up in municipal or privately collected garbage. The only practical solution is to engage like-minded individuals to collect the widely dispersed cups. The real challenge is to collect them to one of many centralized points from where the accumulated cups are picked up and recycled. We call that a “HUB”.

But to do this requires volunteers.

How it works: Using a local church as an example, the church’s “Green Team” becomes part of the Coalition and encourages congregation members to collect whatever cups they can, returning them to a collection point, or “HUB” at the church from where Carbon Neutral Shredding will collect.

If you happen to need shredding, then the pickup is free. But otherwise, the volunteers not only do the labor of picking up and stacking the cups, but they actually pay a nickel a cup to have them taken away and shredded.

Now, all kinds of credit is due to Ian Chandler for setting this up, but I couldn't help thinking, what kind of stupid, screwed-up world is it when volunteers are spending their time and money to pick up Tim Horton's and Ronald McDonald's and Howard Schultz's garbage? Who's responsible for this problem? THE PRODUCERS. Make them put a deposit on every cup and take it back. Let them call the shredder and pay him when they have a bag full.

The real problem, as Katherine Martinko and I keep saying, is that we have to change not the cup, but the culture. We have to simply stop using single use cups, we have to sit down and smell the coffee or carry a refillable one. This was the true circular economy, where you used a cup, washed it, and used it again. We can't depend on the kindness of strangers who pick up our cup and take it to church.

It's a fundamental problem that plays out today in Joel Makower's column in GreenBiz, Is the global quest to end plastic waste a circular firing squad?

Makower starts with a report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (PDF Here) about how the packaged goods industry is trying to clean up its act. He writes:

For most packaged-goods companies, the stated goal is to eliminate waste — closing the loop by implementing compostable, reusable and recyclable versions of single-use plastic packaging — and then to work with local communities, waste haulers and others to ensure that their used packaging actually gets composted, reused or recycled. It often means working simultaneously at internal (package design), value chain (suppliers and consumers) and external (recycling infrastructure) scales, often in collaboration with peer companies, municipalities and others. In other words, a systemic approach.

It might be their stated goal, but there has not been much sign of implementation. Makower also likes all those new technologies like Purification or Decomposition (more here in TreeHugger) that will somehow affordably turn plastic waste into useful stuff, but which I believe is just the plastics industry hijacking the circular economy. Or as I have noted,

This sham of a circular economy is just another way to continue the status quo, with some more expensive reprocessing. It is the plastics industry telling government, “Don't worry, we will save recycling, just invest zillions in these new reprocessing technologies and maybe in a decade we can turn some of it back into plastic.” It ensures that the consumer doesn't feel guilty buying the bottled water or the disposable coffee cup because after all, hey, it's now circular. And look who is behind it – the plastics and recycling industry.

Makower then attacks that position, complaining about Greenpeace's report “Throwing Away Our Future: How Companies Still Have It Wrong on Plastic Pollution ‘Solutions'” (PDF). I had not seen this before, but it sounds a lot like us on TreeHugger, saying these high tech solutions…

“enable these companies to continue business as usual rather than reducing demand for plastic.” It criticizes what it calls “false solutions that fail to move us away from single-use plastic, diverting attention away from better systems, perpetuating the throwaway culture and confusing people in the process.”

Makower says that “an actual ‘reuse revolution' is likely a ways off, at least at the scale Greenpeace likely would find acceptable” – as if his magic recycling technologies were not. He claims “activists, for their part, need to embrace partial measures on the road to what is likely to be a decade-long shift to their ideal state.”

Tweet photo used with permission from Jan at Waste Counter.

I have always admired Joel Makower, a pioneer in green journalism, but I believe he is on the wrong side of this one. This doesn't need to take decades. Start by putting a deposit on everything and continue by ensuring producer responsibility for the full cost of recycling. Mandate that all single-use packaging be designed for recycling: a single plastic, no monstrous hybrids. The amount of waste would go down real fast.

I will circle back to StackitNOW, which has designed a clever answer to the problem of the paper coffee cup. Yes, they get collected and recycled into toilet paper, but at what cost, whose cost, whose time? It makes no sense compared to a washable cup. It doesn't scale. And it is a microcosm of the whole single-use economy, which is seriously resistant to change. I wrote earlier:

Over the last 60 years, every aspect of our lives has changed because of disposables. We live in a totally linear world where trees and bauxite and petroleum are turned into the paper and aluminum and plastics that are part of everything we touch. It has created this Convenience Industrial Complex. It's structural. It's cultural. Changing it is going to be far more difficult because it permeates every aspect of the economy.

To think that the plastics industry is actually going to do this themselves with this circular economy magic is a fantasy.

Recycling is hard. That's why we have to eliminate single use packaging and not get distracted.