Can Recycling Keep Up With Consumer Demand?

We’re living in the midst of an exciting seismic shift—one that, in theory, supports the movement toward a more sustainable future. A 2021 global survey reveals 85% of consumers claim they’ve implemented sustainable changes in regard to their purchasing behavior, and 50% of consumers consider sustainability one of their top five purchase-driving values.


In response to this shift, companies across the globe are turning to recyclable materials.


  • As part of the Global Commitment led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, over 500 organizations worldwide have committed to ambitious goals to increase the amount of reusable, recyclable, or compostable materials in their packaging.
  • In America, every one of the 25 largest CPG companies has promised to minimize, reuse, and/or increase the recyclable content of their packaging. 80% of these companies have committed to 100% recyclable, reusable, or compostable packaging by 2030.


With that being said, is it realistic to think recycled material and current recycling practices can keep up with these lofty commitments and the growing consumer demand?


Where’s the (Hopefully Recyclable) Bottleneck?

Recycling has been around for decades, so why have we just begun to place so much emphasis on recycled and recyclable materials?


The harsh reality is that recycling involves so many different pieces—government regulation, regional rules, company participation and effort, consumer understanding and action, and beyond. When you have that many pieces to the puzzle, a lot can go wrong.


In a perfect world, everyone would recycle, and we’d already be operating in a circular economy. We may all want the same thing, but we all have to align to achieve that “perfect world”—or anything close to it.


So, what are some of the biggest bottlenecks?


Consumer Confusion

There are so many aspects that lead to consumer confusion around recycling.


  • Regional Rules: Many countries implement regional rules around recycling, and many residents don’t know exactly what they are. A 2021 global survey reveals that the top two leading barriers to recycling are (1) the lack of recycling programs and (2) not knowing how to participate in recycling programs.
  • Material Variation: There’s an overarching disconnect between thought and action, and many consumers have a false sense of confidence surrounding individual material recyclability. In the US, 64% of people are confident they know what types of plastics can be recycled, yet 61% wrongly believe that plastics such as grocery bags and bubble wrap can go in their curbside recycling bins.
  • Recycling vs. Composting: There are a lot of compostable materials out there that look like plastic. Many people who don’t have experience composting—or simply mistake the compostable material for plastic—end up throwing these into the recycling bin. If mixed with petroleum-based plastics, this can contaminate the recycling stream.
  • Trust: Many people believe that even after they correctly recycle, facilities may not actually process the materials. When word got out that developed countries may be sending their recycled waste to be dumped in vulnerable, underdeveloped countries, many consumers began to feel they couldn’t trust the system anymore.


All of these considerations lend to a general disconnect and lack of effort. Many consumers think, “Is it worth it? Why even try?” While there are different ways to calculate a country’s overall recycling rate, you can see from this 2022 chart of 180 countries that rates are not very promising—with the UK at 34%, the US at 14%, Ireland at 42%, France at 32%, Mexico at 10%, Canada at 23%, China at 24%, and the highest, South Korea, at 67%. 


Unstable Supply

As you can see, recycled material is very unique, as consumers control the supply. This, by definition, is an unstable supply. Consumer recycling rates are slowly climbing (if at all) while the demand for recycled material is hiking up at full speed.


But, the instability doesn’t end there. What about geopolitical trends?


  • Import Restrictions: Recent import bans have slowed down recycling even further. Historically, the US used to send a lot of recyclables to China to be processed. But China’s 2018 ban on imported plastics put a stop to that, tempting developed countries to send even more recyclable waste to rot in underdeveloped countries.
  • Rising Prices: Post-consumer recycled (PCR) material prices have been high, and experts predict they’re likely to stay high for (at least) the next couple of years. Slow supply increases and consistently strong demand are considered the “new normal” in the world of PCR material, yet demand continues to hold strong even with these higher prices.


These events are just a couple of examples of bumps in the recycling road—ones that have caused the price of recycled material to increase. We’ve seen the far-reaching effects of this in our own partners’ supply chains.


The Time Is Now

If we want this to work, every stakeholder must be intentional, honest, and aligned. Otherwise, there simply won’t be enough supply to keep up with consumer demands and global promises.


Recycling rates speak louder than words.


How can we all own our role in this recycling story?


  • Government Responsibility: Countries with the highest recycling rates set out clear government policies and restrictions regarding waste management. South Korea’s waste management system, Jongnyangje, is a great example of this.
  • Recycling Facility Responsibility: With so many regional rules, it’s the responsibility of recycling facilities to clearly outline what items they accept to reduce consumer confusion. Transparency is also hugely important. Where are the recyclables going? Are they actually being recycled and resold, or are they being exported to vulnerable countries and dumped?
  • Brand Responsibility: Work with sustainable packaging experts to come up with the best bespoke solution for you. Hint hint, GPA Global is a whole company full of packaging experts. Specific solutions include reducing weight, increasing reusability, increasing recycled content, and beyond.
  • Sustainable Packaging Expert Responsibility: We always work to fulfill our responsibility to guide our partners to the best sustainable packaging solution—using our knowledge and expertise regarding material engineering, package labeling, hybrid supply chain solutions, and Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). We can help increase packaging reusability, recyclability, and recycled content. We can also provide guidance regarding labeling each packaging item to improve end-of-life recyclability.
  • Individual Responsibility: At the end of the day, it’s up to us all, as consumers, to understand our area’s recycling rules, research alternative methods of disposal (if recycling is not the answer), and vote with our dollars to support brands and facilities who follow through with their recycling promises.


Always remember, there’s hope in alignment. The majority of the world is aligned in their desire to act more sustainably—now let’s transfer this alignment to the world and everyday action of recycling.

27 February 2023
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