Note: This story first published on Jan. 7, 2019 in The Washington Post with additional multimedia features. See it here.
In communities all over the world, circular recycling solutions provide a path to keeping plastic products out of our natural environments for good.
In the center of the Pacific Ocean, weighing more than 87,000 tons, is an amorphous vortex of trash known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. First discovered in the mid-1990s, it expands each year, collecting new pieces and particles. It’s just one striking example of how the world is experiencing a direct threat from excess consumer waste, demonstrating the urgent need for sustainable solutions.
Finding those solutions is the focus of The
These diverse programs provide valuable lessons that can be applied around the world. Ultimately, The
From Mexico To The U.S., Strategic Investments Lead To Strong Solutions
It’s estimated that over 1 kilogram (that’s more than 2 pounds) of trash is generated per person, per day in Mexico. Much of that trash previously ended up in landfills, on the streets, or in the oceans. But over the last few years, Mexico has become “the leading country in Latin America in PET collection and recycling,” according to a report from the online magazine El Dictamen. (PET is a clear and lightweight plastic used to make many plastic bottles). Now, 60 percent of Mexico’s recycled PET is repurposed for the national market, and the rest is exported abroad.
Much of that can be attributed to a multiyear investment by The
Mexico has embraced a circular solution in which used bottles become new goods rather than waste in landfills. PetStar, based in Toluca, Mexico, has developed an integrated recycling company that serves the
The country’s success is “a matter of investment, education, engagement and motivating consumers to be part of that infrastructure, as well as driving that infrastructure and making it more efficient,” said Ben Jordan, senior director of environmental policy at The
Mexico’s project is an example of how strong, tactical programs can grow out of economic investment. It shows that, while the goals may vary from region to region, success will come, ultimately, from finding innovative, circular solutions that work in each market. That’s why The
And in the U.S., partnerships such as the Closed Loop Fund (a predecessor to Circulate Capital) aim to increase recycling rates across the country by strengthening existing infrastructures. The
In Memphis, Tenn., for example, the Closed Loop Fund has helped the city achieve new levels of waste management, adding additional recycling containers and advanced processing methods to serve over 150,000 homes and collect 34 million pounds of recyclables for reuse.
South Africa Provides a Vision of Sustainability
Since South Africa’s opening to the global trade market in the 1990s, the country has rapidly become one of the major economic forces in Africa. Along with this growth has come an increase in plastic waste and a need for a more sustainable recycling infrastructure. PETCO, the national voluntary extended producer responsibility company that supports and promotes PET recycling, has helped moved the country forward in this regard.
“One of the keys to South Africa’s success,” said Casper Durandt, head of sustainable packaging and agriculture for the
PETCO now has a total of 11 recycling partners across South Africa. These recyclers produce food-grade PET from recycled bottles in three state-of-the-art, bottle-to-bottle recycling plants. The
Durandt believes so strongly in this model that he is currently focused on expanding the program throughout Africa with The
In June of this year, PETCO Kenya introduced a series of PET collection initiatives. Given these successes, there is plenty of reason to believe that this system can be replicated throughout Africa—and in many other countries around the world.
In Estonia and Australia, Consumers Drive Successful Recycling Collection Networks
Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, the tiny Baltic nation of Estonia has quietly become one of the most technologically advanced countries in the region. Early adopters, they’ve not only built an internet infrastructure and startup culture to rival Silicon Valley, they were also the first country in Eastern Europe to wholly embrace a closed-loop circular economy.
Estonian leaders looked to their neighbors in Sweden and Norway to adopt parts of their successful collection systems that engage producers, retailers, consumers and local governments. (Sweden did this so successfully that it now has to import trash to convert to energy to power its recycling plants.)
Based on these learnings, Estonia’s own success as one of the E.U.’s most dedicated recyclers can be attributed to its creation of a win-win-win ecosystem that involved establishing a network of recycling vending machines at major gathering points throughout the country. Through this approach, people can exchange plastic, glass, and cans for cash or charity donations, which is widely popular and highly effective.
“The key to its success was that it was very collaborative, with all the necessary market players involved—producers, retailers and local governments,” said Nele Normak,
Other nations with developed recycling infrastructures have also benefited from a collection network driven by consumers. Take Australia, for example. Since 2017, the country has started to change how it recycles containers, working to ensure that as many as possible are collected in some way, shape or form—either through a network of container-return collection points and vending machines or through curbside collection services. From there, all of the collected bottles are recycled and reused to support a circular-economy approach.
One of Australia’s greatest successes has been in opening up the collection market to competitive bidding. “We find that instead of one collection methodology dominating, we can open the market and encourage innovation in the way the collection is done,” said Jeff Maguire, group head of container deposit scheme implementation and sustainable packaging at
Recently, the system has been expanded from South Australia, where the program has been operating for 42 years, to other Australian states. “With the exception of two states, by the middle of 2020 the majority of the country will be under similar collection models,” said Maguire.
Australia’s vast and often remote geography is a challenge, with many smaller towns unable to provide recycling infrastructures on a level with larger cities.
Putting Circular Solutions into Action
“That's where we have to concentrate on innovative ways to make the collection system more convenient for those consumers,” said Maguire. “We've been taking the South Australian approach and updating it, making modifications to ensure it's more efficient, easier for consumers to recycle, and has the many options that technology now enables to make those models friendlier and more accessible.”
Sustainability and closed loop cycles must now become a global priority, from emerging nations to the world’s largest economies. Companies at the forefront of sustainability are thinking creatively to address this growing concern. If the success of innovative closed loop circular systems in Estonia, Australia, South Africa, Mexico and the United States are any indication, no country or market is too small, large, or even remote to adapt more sustainable recycling models based on the unique socioeconomic factors and governmental policies in each region. These solutions ultimately help create a closed-loop system that benefits the environment, serves communities and begins the path to solutions for this generation. As each of these examples demonstrates, these goals do not have to be mutually exclusive.