Keeping Our Recycling Quality

Early in my professional career I stumbled into working closely with quality assurance. Within manufacturing this is one of, if not the most, important departments. Quality Departments ensure that the items being produced are acceptable. However, this isn’t the same quality that you or I might think of. This isn’t premium products like Gucci or Prada, quality departments are all about consistency.

There is variation in everything in life; whether that be the temperature throughout the day or what time you arrive at work each morning. Nothing is perfectly the same every time. The job of quality departments is to reduce that variation as much as possible. So when you look at companies like McDonald’s for example, they have excellent quality because no matter what McDonald’s you go to, all around the world, they all seem to taste exactly the same. McDonalds might not have a reputation for having “premium” products, but I do believe they have excellent quality.

You may be asking yourself, “what does this have to do with recycling?” Well, it actually has everything to do with our recycling. The recycling efforts you and I make are only as successful as the systems that actually collect, process, and redistribute our recycling. If our recycling systems are ineffective then all the hard work we put into making sure our waste ends up in the appropriate bin is futile. So I want to walk through how I would normally apply a quality system to a process and why its so challenging for recycling facilities.

Photo by zibik on Unsplash

The way quality has always been taught to be is going to the very start. If I have a multi-step process, each step adds additional value to whatever you are producing. Between the labor costs and any material costs, whatever you are producing gets more expensive after each step in the process. Because of this, when we are asking ourselves “where do I start?” with our attempts to improve the consistency and thus quality of our products, we want to go back to the beginning of the process.

For most production operations, this means starting with the raw materials being purchased. After all, you can’t make good quality if you start with crummy materials. This is where I have been reflecting considerably in regards to our recycling.

Our recycling facilities are at the mercy of the work we do up front to collect our recyclables correctly. Their raw materials are defined by everything that shows up to their dock doors and they have no legitimate say in the matter. Between the various products that brand owners decide to make and our (often) poor recycling, we end up with reduced efficiencies and lower valued outputs at these facilities.

So what can we do to correct this? Honestly, I don’t know. We have thousands of brands producing products with only minimal consideration of the end of life. Plus we have millions of people producing waste with very little knowledge on what does and doesn’t belong in the recycling bin. It’s amazing this system has worked for as long as it has, but something has to change.

When it comes to how to solve this, I seem to see one of two responses. Either people put the blame entirely on brand owners, saying they need to provide better alternatives (I’m still unsure of what alternatives brand owners are expected to suddenly use). The second response is that consumers are responsible for behaving sustainably and disposing of everything correctly.

For me, it’s both. We all need to be working together to create a consistent waste stream. This isn’t going to be an easy road, but we need to work together to help our recycling facilities be more successful. They need consistent supply of raw materials in order to make their outputs more valuable and thus the entire recycling process more valuable!

But what do you think? How do you think we can make our recycling process more successful? Is there something you think I’m overlooking? Let me know in the comments!

Green Washing: The Devil is in the Details

It has started to seem like there has been a shift in people and business over the last few years. There seems to be an increasing consideration for all things related to the environment and I think a lot of the steps being taken are incredibly valuable. However, it still appears that despite all of these actions being taken, the destruction and devastation to our environment seems to continue. Some of this might just be due to the scale of the problem. There is a lot of people and a lot of work to be done to get us to a truly sustainable point.

But I think there is another reason that some of these efforts have seemed to be unsuccessful. I think it’s because many of these efforts aren’t genuine and in many cases are just for show. But why? I believe that some of the lack of progress can be blamed on Green Washing.

Green Washing can be defined as “spending more time and money claiming to be ‘green’ through advertising and marketing rather than actually implementing business practices that minimize environmental impact.” This is something that is running rampant in industry. With so many people focused on environmental issues, companies know they have to make changes to satisfy their customers. However, many of the claims coming out aren’t genuine.

Photo by veeterzy on Unsplash

The diesel scandal with Volkswagen that happened several years ago is a perfect example. The company was spending money advertising their diesel vehicles as environmental, all while they were also spending money to hide their true large amounts of exhaust from the EPA. This video on how Fiji water brands itself is another great example of how Green Washing can be done.

This has to stop, but how? I don’t want to discredit myself, but my previous blog post on the power of people to drive environmental change is really hard to do when we aren’t informed as consumers. I have and will continue to preach the value in education. We can’t fight this misinformation if we don’t work to be informed. And it will be exactly that: hard work.

Wondering where to start? Well Terra Choice created a list of six sins of Green Washing in 2007, which will help you get a broader understanding. Some of the things they warn about are vagueness, a lack of proof, and hidden tradeoffs that don’t get mentioned. Regardless of the source of this misinformation, the best place to start is to ask questions, and lots of them. You will need to do the research to align yourself with brands that make trustworthy claims whenever possible. Don’t be fooled by green packages, brown paper bags, or glass bottles. As we have talked about before, look at the science and look for data such as life cycle analysis to know if the product you are considering is actually “green”.

Photo by Franki Chamaki on Unsplash

As someone working within the packaging industry, I will admit that sometimes these instances of Green Washing aren’t malicious. In fact, many times it’s led by individuals like myself simply trying to make things better. I have heard stories that some of the original “bio-degradable” packages didn’t actually degrade. They actually just broke into smaller and smaller pieces, often called micro-plastics, which is far from what they had intended. Micro-plastics themselves are a complicated subject because the data on the potential harmful impact isn’t clear, but there are speculations on the risks in humans.

All of this is just to say that this is a complicated issue. We have people intentionally misleading for profit, as well as positive efforts causing issues. Despite this, you don’t need to go on this journey alone. Many others and myself are working to learn and educate as much as possible about these issues. Keep asking questions and never stop learning. Have a product you aren’t sure of when it comes to the validity of their claims? Let me know by posting it in the comments and we can explore it together!