Recycling: On the Trash-Heap of History?

In my opinion one of the most consequential but least covered business and society stories of the past 6 months is the decision, made last October by China, to ban imports of 24 categories of recyclables and solid waste.

Why is this important? Because China is the world’s largest buyer of recycled materials. Many if not most recycling programs are reliant on China buying their recycled plastics, paper and metal. In Canada, B.C. is one of the few provinces whose recycled content is clean enough — that is its paper and plastics are not contaminated with other materials — to continue as a quality feed stock.

A simple example of this contamination is if the paper you toss into the Blue Box happens to have food stuck to it. China’s new standard places a limit of a 0.5% contamination rate on imported recycled product. In many places people just toss all recyclables into one container rather than sorting recyclables at course, all but guaranteeing that there will be cross-contamination. Municipalities compound the problem by not investing in more advanced sorting processes.

I believe that for many people, myself included, the Blue Bin is a kind of morality cleanser. So long as we throw a bunch of stuff we think is vaguely recyclable into it, we don’t have to think much about what happens to the trash — we’ve done our duty simply by putting it into the “recycling” pile.

For those people whose job involves stuff like product development, business strategy, supply chain management, information management, marketing, finance, process etc. in other words just about everything that goes on in an organization, I suggest there is a need and an opportunity to apply much more disruptive and transformational thinking to the reduction of waste materials throughout the entire product and service life cycle as well as improving the yield on that which is recycled.

CBC Radio’s The Current had a good episode on the topic, called “The ‘golden age’ of recycling is coming to an end.”

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