I recently read this book and thought it was worth reviewing. Serving as a guidebook to recycling better, this publication is so much more than that! It was visually appealing, as it is illustrated with colorful diagrams and visuals to enhance your understanding of the subject matter.
The author, Jennie Romer, is an attorney and sustainability expert. She has more than a decade of experience fighting for effective legislation on single-use plastics and waste reduction.1 Romer currently serves as a legal associate for the Surfrider Foundation’s Plastic Pollution Initiative “where she leads Surfrider’s policy efforts and litigation to reduce plastic pollution at local, state and national levels.”2 She created the Surfrider Foundation’s Plastic Bag Law Activist Toolkit3 and founded the website PlasticBagLaws.org.4The New Yorker called her “the country’s leading expert in plastic-bag law.”5
“The truth is – and you knew this was coming – that recycling alone won’t save us or the planet.” -Jennie Romer
Purpose of the Book
Romer wrote that people ask her all the time, “Can I Recycle This?” and that was part of the impetus for the book. But the answers are never simple. Laws in different municipalities and recycling material profitability vary greatly. Recycling collection does not translate directly to actual recycling. With her background in law and sustainability, she was able to put together this guide that offers recycling advice, waste management systems and processes, and briefs histories of how these systems came to be.
In her introduction, she echoed my thoughts from my Packaging Series on packaging and manufacturer responsibility. “Recycling is only effective if the materials can be sold for a profit, and the markets for what is profitable fluctuates. Sadly, a lot of our carefully separated and washed plastics end up getting shipped to developing countries and contributing to climate change. And that’s where policy and activism come in: The ultimate goal is to adopt sensible and effective policies to reduce single-use plastic and other packaging, and hold producers responsible for making better packaging and paying for the cost of recycling and waste disposal (and cleanup).“6 Romer also viewed this book as a contribution to that movement.
Concise Overview of Waste Management
The first section of the book covered a concise overview of the recycling system and other waste management methods. Romer explained these complex systems well but with brevity. Topics included defining recycling and what recyclable means, the types of plastic resins (numbers on plastics), global plastic production, and how resources are extracted and produced. The book provided an overview of how single-stream recycling and other types of recycling systems work, sorting at Material Recovery Facilities, and the end markets for recycled materials. Additionally, she addressed “biodegradable” and “compostable” plastics, incineration, and how modern landfills operate. There is so much to learn, and I found this section fascinating!
Guide to Recycling
In this core section, the author covered the recyclability of specific items, from straws to eyeglasses to disposable coffee cups. This section used a color-coding system both in the table of contents and on the edges of the pages to make it easy for the reader to quickly assess recyclability.
The Toll of Our Waste
Romer also covered the toll that our waste takes on air and water pollution, wildlife, and human health. She wrote about environmental justice regarding communities adjacent or near incineration facilities, landfills, or chemical plants. The book detailed China’s National Sword Policy and how that has changed our recycling markets globally. She also included the human health and pollution ramifications of shipping our waste internationally.
Personal & Policy Solutions
There are many solutions to avoid buying single-use disposable plastics, and Romer offered many ideas. She detailed greenwashing in advertising and offered advice on how to avoid those products. Most importantly, she explained how to have a voice within policy and regulations, particularly in regards to single-use disposable plastics. She defined Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) and explored The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act (BFFPPA).7 “The bill is a road map for how to address the plastic pollution problem in the U.S. and was developed by legislators in consultation with environmental groups and other experts,” she wrote. “The legislation looks at virtually the entire life cycle of plastics, from its creation to manufacturing and disposal.”
It can be hard to convey the importance of recycling and environmental responsibility. I found this book inspired me to keep the momentum going on fighting single-use disposal products, preventing climate change, and protecting human and animal life. This is our planet, and we need to protect ourselves from the catastrophes we are creating. We can all be the change. Romer hopes so too: “I hope that this book inspires you to become involved with plastics reduction and recycling.” I wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone wishing to learn more about recycling and the related issues.
Ask for a copy of this book at your local library! Thank you for reading. Please share and subscribe.
In my last article about the packaging industry, we explored companies with recycling built into their business models, have creative packaging, or use limited or no packaging. Today, we are going to look at refillable packaging.
Besides refilling bottles or jugs at a water refill station, other consumer refill options could make a significant impact on the amount of disposed of plastic and packaging. The idea is that you buy your products in containers that are either reusable or are returned to the company for sanitation and reuse or recycling. This eliminates disposable packaging and should be one of the major solutions to our packaging problems. I was encouraged to discover just how many companies offer refillable solutions!
“To protect the health of humans and fellow creatures who share our planet, the urgent priority must be to eliminate single-use consumer plastic, and to invest in reusable, refillable and package-free approaches.”1
Of the several types of refillable products on the market, I wanted to start with cleaners because they are the easiest to refill. Most cleaning products are made of about 90% water and almost all are sold in single-use disposable plastic bottles or pouches. Additionally, most major brand cleaners are full of harsh chemicals, toxic ingredients, and phthalates (“fragrance”). To make matters worse, in the United States companies are not required to list their ingredients on the label. So what can we do to get away from harmful products that are in disposable packaging? It turns out, there are lots of options!
I have not tried many of these products because I make my own Easy DIY Cleaner that I use for windows, counters, floors, and bathrooms. But I am still looking at options for liquid dish soap, laundry products, personal use items, and food items that have plastic-free packaging and non-toxic ingredients.
Supermarket aisle with cleaning products. Photo by me
I discovered Fillaree earlier this year, and I love their business model.2 They sell liquid dish soap, cleaners, shampoo, conditioner, body wash, and other products. You buy your first bottle and when you run out, you can bring it back to the store to refill. Their products are sold in stores, many in North Carolina where they’re based out of but also one in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Atlanta, Georgia. If you don’t live near a store that sells their products, as I do not, they have a mail program for their dish soap, hand soap, and all-purpose cleaner. No packaging waste! Here’s a Fillaree chart showing how it works:
I’ve recently purchased their products and tried their mail-in program. The liquid dish soap comes in a glass pump bottle and the refill comes in a plastic jug that you mail back in a prepaid envelope for the company to reuse. This is an ideal system. I will fully review their products in a future post – but I can tell you that so far, it’s very easy to use.
Meliora Cleaning Products
Meliora Cleaning Products is a Certified B Corporation that makes non-toxic cleaners and detergents that are sold in plastic-free refillable packaging.3 Their All-Purpose Cleaner and the refill container can make 18 bottles. They sell powdered laundry detergent in a steel and cardboard container. You can buy refills in recyclable/compostable paper bags and not have plastic waste. I’m excited about this company! I tried their laundry detergent and oxygen cleaner and I like it so much that it is going to be my new regular laundry product brand.
This company uses all-natural essential oil blends for all of their cleaning products, with no chemicals.4The customer mixes the solutions with water in reusable glass spray bottles. Supernatural’s products ship in glass vials and all items ship with only cardboard packaging. No plastic waste! “When I conceived Supernatural it was out of a desire to create something that’s never been made before: all-natural cleaning products that are sustainably sourced, with the lowest carbon footprint possible, that smell unbelievably amazing,” wrote the founder. They also sell aromatherapy products using essential oil blends.
With a mission to stop plastic waste and pollution by selling cleaning products in reusable containers, Blueland sells reusable bottles and concentrated refills. Their products have no toxic ingredients, are vegan, and cruelty-free. They ship with all recyclable and/or compostable packaging.5
As I was writing this, Blueland announced that they are doing away with PVA in their laundry tabs! PVA is an acronym for polyvinyl alcohol, which is a petroleum-based plastic that dissolves in water but the plastic stays in the water system. It is commonly used as a wrapper for convenient pre-measured amounts of dishwasher and laundry detergent tabs. They are allegedly dissolvable and biodegradable, but recent studies confirm that all of the plastic does not break down. “PVA does not fully biodegrade in most wastewater treatment facilities. This can potentially result in an estimated 60-82% of intact, PVA particles released into our oceans, rivers and canals,” the company states. Blueland now sells naked laundry detergent tabs. This is a really big deal, and I’m even more excited about this company now!
This company’s mission is to eliminate plastic packaging in household cleaning products. Sold in aluminum containers and refillable, the company does not appear to use plastic packaging for shipping. They use limited ingredients and list all of them on their website. They are also a carbon-neutral company. The company does use plastic refill pouches but they will reclaim these to send to TerraCycle at their cost, where they will actually be recycled. They have a blog that covers healthy and sustainable living.6
This company was founded by three women who experienced health problems, both personally and within their families, but discovered renewed health by removing toxins from their homes, food, and lives. They founded Branch Basics to get back to basic, clean living and to inspire others to do so. You select a bottle and buy “The Concentrate” which makes multiple types of cleaner – you use different amounts of water and concentrate in each type of cleaner. I really like that they have one cleaner for almost everything! It is a #1 plastic bottle, but it is significantly less plastic wasted since the product lasts so long. I am also excited about their Wellness Center resource page, which has articles about healthy living.7
“We believe choices like the food we put in our bodies, the paint we put on our walls, and the cleaners we use around our homes have power; the power to rob us of good health or to cultivate it.” -Branch Basics8
Replenish & CleanPath
CleanPath, which is part of Replenish,9 are refillable bottle systems that offer concentrated cleaners and foaming hand soap, which saves time, resources, and money.10 The company’s mission is to eliminate waste from buying products in disposable plastic bottles. The founder designed a system where the consumer buys the plastic bottle once and refills it with a concentrated refill pod that attaches to the bottom of the bottle. Each pod can make 4-6 bottles of cleaner. By only shipping the concentrate and no water, it greatly reduces emissions and reduces plastic waste. However, I believe that the pods must be recycled at the end of their life, so this is still plastic waste although much less. Replenish and CleanPath claim to use less toxic ingredients and real essential oil bases for fragrance.
JAWS (an acronym for Just Add Water™ System) wanted to reduce plastic waste and reduce emissions by shipping cleaning products without water. They founded their company on this principle: “Stop Shipping Water. It’s the Right Thing to Do.” The products are EPA Safer Choice certified but not necessarily all non-toxic. But they offer full ingredients lists on their website for each product.11 Like Replenish and CleanPath, the pods are not reusable which does still create plastic waste, albeit less plastic waste.
As the name suggests, this collaborative company sells its own products but also sells products from other companies that manufacture like-minded products. They are a Certified B Company that sells household cleaners and personal use items that use safe, non-toxic ingredients but also offer some refillable products and containers. Grove uses a take-back program for their refill pouches, which customers return to them and they send them to TerraCycle for recycling. They have carbon neutral and plastic neutral practices, use ethical supply chains, and use sustainable materials for their own products. This company might be a good solution as a one-stop-shop, but it does seem to be subscription-based only.12
Inspired to create simple cleaning products, minimize the number of cleaners in the home, and reduce plastic waste, Truman’s created a system of refillable products. They ship them in fully recyclable cardboard packaging. While I respect any company that is trying to do something good, this company sells its pods in PVA, which I do not recommend using. Truman’s also includes upcycled polyester towels in their starter kits, and fibers from polyester (which is plastic) get into the water supply from washing machine drainage.13
Cleancult sells refills for its line of cleaning products, and its refills are shipped in 100% paper mailers.14 The company is very transparent in its ingredients and explains in detail what every ingredient does, which I really like! It is a carbon-neutral company too. However, Cleancult uses cartons for some refills. These are lined with a thin layer of plastic on the interior and exterior. If you read my article about cartons, you’ll recall that although they contain far less plastic than regular plastic bottles, cartons are not recyclable in many areas. Also, the company uses PVA for its dishwasher and laundry tabs. I do not recommend using any PVA, but I like that this company is taking steps in the right direction.
Common Good began in an effort to develop products with non-toxic ingredients that were safe around children and pets, as well as reducing plastic waste.15 Its products are Leaping Bunny certified and their biodegradable cleaning formulas are refillable at nationwide refill stations (although there is not one in my area). When purchasing online, the refills come in plastic pouches. While these use 86% less plastic than traditional plastic bottles, Common Good does not take the pouches back. They must be taken to stores that accept plastic bags for recycling. It is not clear if these collection sites result in actual recycling, which I wrote about in a previous article, so these may end up in landfills.
Refillable Systems are on the Rise
Writing this post, I was so encouraged to learn that there are more refill shops than I knew about! I hope that you have discovered a few companies that you’d like to try out. We can all help end plastic packaging waste by using a refill system. I plan to try several of these products and once I do, I’ll be sure to review them! In my next post, I will cover refillable systems for personal use products. Thank you for reading!
“Plastic was meant to last forever, but most is only used once. 8 billion tons of plastic trash – that iced coffee you had last week, that toothbrush you used when you were 4 – are still on the planet.” -Blueland
This post does not contain any affiliate links nor did I get paid to promote any of the products in this post.
In my last article, I wrote about Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) and Take-back programs. It’s hard to talk about packaging without addressing two giant corporations that sell the most goods to consumers and thus the most packaging, Walmart and Amazon. These are huge companies that can make a big difference in packaging waste. There are thousands of companies that follow the practices of these businesses, so they are also influential. I’ll cover Walmart in this post and Amazon in the next.
Walmart started looking at packaging early
The company has made some positive changes in the packaging world over the last 15 years. From redesigning shoeboxes to use less paper, to lightweighting wine bottles to use less fuel, and to reducing the number of wire ties in toy packaging, Walmart has made some differences. In some ways, they’ve led the way in packaging innovations.
“When we first began in product sustainability, one of the first things we started on was packaging, because packaging cuts through every category.” -Laura Phillips, Senior Vice President of Sustainability, Walmart
Walmart’s vision for sustainability began in 2005 when the company partnered with suppliers to improve packaging on its private-label toy line. “By reducing the packaging on fewer than 300 toys, Wal-Mart saved 3,425 tons of corrugated materials, 1,358 barrels of oil, 5,190 trees, 727 shipping containers and $3.5 million in transportation costs, in just one year,” according to the 2006 press release.1 The company took what it learned from that and developed its Packaging Scorecard in 2006. That was later embedded in the company’s Sustainability Index.
The Sustainability Index, developed by The Sustainability Consortium2 collects and analyzes information about a product’s life cycle. This includes sourcing, manufacturing and transporting, selling, customer usage, and end of life. Walmart uses the data to identify key social and environmental issues. Suppliers can view their scores, see how they rank relative to the field, and gain insight into opportunities for improvement.
“Wal-mart sparked much of the interest in packaging sustainability with the introduction of its Packaging Scorecard in 2006.” – Lisa McTigue Pierce3
New sustainability model
Today, Walmart has three tiers in its sustainability model for its brands, suppliers, manufacturers, and package designers to develop more efficient and sustainable packaging.4 These tiers are optimizing packaging design, sourcing packaging materials sustainably, and supporting recycling in packaging. They encourage the suppliers and brands they work with to follow this model for their packaging.
Walmart argues that consumers are confused about recycling. This is because recycling systems are inconsistent, the packaging is not correctly labeled, and there’s too much of it. So Walmart encourages its suppliers to use the How2Recycle label. This is a consistent labeling program that clearly shows consumers what is and is not recyclable. How2Recycle’s “mission is to get more materials in the recycling bin by taking the guesswork out of recycling.”5 While this labeling does help with recycling confusion, it shifts the responsibility of disposal to the consumer.
Walmart’s aspiration is Zero Plastic Waste
Walmart’s goal is zero plastic waste, and they acknowledge the challenges of this on their sustainability website.6 They recognize that around 35% of plastic produced is used in packaging and that most of that is thrown away after a single-use. While plastic packaging can protect products, it is mostly a means of transporting products. But then it becomes waste. Project Gigaton is the “Walmart initiative to avoid one billion metric tons (a gigaton) of greenhouse gases from the global value chain by 2030.”7 Walmart believes that sometimes plastic is the most practical solution for packaging in terms of overall carbon footprint. But they want to find end-of-life solutions.
Walmart shifts responsibility
Walmart has shifted some of the responsibility of packaging waste to the consumer and municipal recycling systems. The company claims, “Society’s ability to collect and recycle plastic waste has failed to keep up with exponential increases in plastic production.” The company recognizes that there are huge challenges in the recycling industry. But they claim that recycling infrastructure is weak and that less than half of US households have access to recycling. While the latter part is absolutely true, the recycling industry simply can’t keep up.
The overproduction of plastic for the last four decades has been perpetuated by companies and corporations, manufacturers, the American Chemistry Council, and the petroleum industry. They produced so much at such an exponential rate and then shifted the burden of that waste to municipalities and the recycling industry. The U.S. was so overwhelmed that they had to ship that waste to foreign countries, like China, which has since banned the practice due to human health concerns from plastic pollution. Recycling is not the answer. We cannot possibly recycle all of the plastic away.
Walmart can do better
Walmart is in a unique position as a global top retailer. They began looking at packaging sustainability earlier than many companies and made early changes in packaging. But they’ve continued to promote single-use disposable items and other cheap “throw-away” merchandise. I viewed this month’s Walmart ad and it promotes picnic season items. Sale items include single-use items like polystyrene plates, plastic cups, packages of plastic forks, as well as cookies, chips, soda, and water in single-use plastic containers. Of the approximately 119 items pictured in the sales ad, about 82 had plastic packaging or were made of plastic.
The company could do so much more, and they even acknowledge that on their sustainability page:
“We recognize that these aren’t challenges we can solve alone and we want to open our doors to a more collaborative approach within the industry. We want to look for and share new solutions to reducing the use of ‘avoidable’ plastic as well as improving recyclability and the use of recycled plastic in our Private Brand packaging.”
This gives me the impression that they want to do better. While I respect the company’s initiatives, I know that the environment will always come second to profit. Remember that Walmart is a global top retailer and profit is always going to be their first priority. Walmart wants to be sustainable IF they can still turn a profit; IF they can get consumers to pay for it; and IF it will encourage more buying. Overall, I think Walmart can do more to prevent plastic waste.
“No need to recycle something that doesn’t exist in the first place!” -Dougie Poynter8
Thanks for reading, and please subscribe. In my next post, we will look at the packaging practices of the world’s largest online retailer, Amazon.
“If you want to eliminate waste in your life – and in the world – the answers will always come down to one simple thing: consume differently.” -Tom Szaky
If you’ve been following my series on the Packaging Industry, hopefully, you’ve found it informative! In my last article, I wrote about Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). Today, I’ll tell you about one type of EPR, called Take-back programs.
Take-back programs are designed to ‘take back’ discarded items that are not accepted in regular recycling streams like curbside pickup. These programs are typically separate from municipal programs. They are often hosted by manufacturers or companies, for a variety of purposes.
Purposes of Take-Back Programs
Take-back programs exist for several reasons:
To reduce contamination of municipal recycling efforts
For recycling, at least parts of the items
To prevent toxic materials from entering landfilled
Simply to draw in customers
It is often a combination of one or two of those reasons. “Some collections, like the ones for e-waste and plastic bags, are often not so much a recycling effort as an attempt to reduce contamination of municipal solid waste streams and ensure proper disposal,” wrote Chris Daly in The Future of Packaging.
‘Eco-friendly’ and ‘sustainability’ are good for business
Many people want to buy from companies that ‘take back’ or recycle items. “We know that consumers are more likely to patronize companies committed to making positive social and environmental impacts,” wrote Tom Szaky, founder of TerraCycle.1 He noted that many companies have had an influx of marketing campaigns in recent years for consumers to bring back their containers for recycling, but that not all companies are actually socially responsible and transparent in the process.
Sometimes this is greenwashing! If a company cannot actually fulfill its promise of recycling or taking back items, then that is false advertising.
“In the face of increasing demand for more corporate social responsibility and environmental-friendliness, however, the authenticity of some of these recycling programs is questionable.” -Chris Daly
Types of Take-Back Programs
There are many types of take-back programs, so I am presenting the most common ones here.
Plastic Bags, Styrofoam, and Electronics Take-Back Programs
Many stores accept things that typically cannot be recycled, such as plastic grocery bags, styrofoam, and electronics. These programs are good for businesses because they generate foot traffic and brand affinity. This also prevents those items from going to a landfill. It also prevents them from going into your curbside bin, where they will contaminate recycling. Grocery stores, such as Publix, accept plastic bags, #4 plastic bags and Amazon Prime type shipping envelopes, toilet paper wrap, produce and bread bags, dry cleaning bags, styrofoam egg cartons, and styrofoam meat trays. Staples and Best Buy take back many electronic items for recycling. Many electronics companies, such as Samsung,2 have take-back programs of their own, through the mail or drop sites.
While it’s not clear what happens to any of those items, at least there’s a chance that some of those are actually recycled. Also, toxic materials will not leach into groundwater from landfills. In the meantime, these companies appear to be eco-friendly. They can also physically draw you into the stores. Might as well pick up some milk and eggs or printer paper, or maybe check out the new iPhones since you’re already there?
Publix states that “by inspiring customers to recycle these items, we ensure they are disposed of properly and keep them out of the environment and landfills.” It is unclear if these items are actually recycled as they do not specify what they do with the items. The corporation indicates that they are collected at their return centers and “then processed and sold to be made into other items.”3 That’s vague, but I still respected Publix for the effort.
Until I read that Publix actually claims that plastic bags are more sustainable than paper bags! In fact, the entire post is dedicated to promoting plastic over paper. I am appalled and extremely disappointed in Publix for making false claims such as “plastic bags use 71% less energy to produce than paper bags.” Among the many others, “using paper bags generates almost five times more solid waste than using plastic bags,” is similarly outrageous.4
A few years ago, I had a Hamilton Beach brand microwave that stopped working. I begrudgingly replaced it with a new microwave and immediately searched for a proper way to dispose of it but to no avail. I found out that Hamilton Beach will recycle and “properly dispose” of their products if you mail them to them at your cost.5 So I measured and weighed the microwave and looked up the shipping cost on USPS – and it would have been $41! So instead I put it in my shed and forgot about it for a while.
Last year, I called Staples to see if they accepted microwaves. They told me on the phone that yes, they do accept microwaves. So I loaded it in the car and took it to my local Staples. When I got to the service desk, I again asked if they’d recycle the microwave. They said yes. However, when I was researching for this post this week, I discovered that their site says they do not accept kitchen appliances. Now I wonder if that microwave was recycled, or if it was tossed in the trash after all. I guess I’ll never know, but I sure tried.
Ink Cartridges, Light Bulbs, and Rechargeable Batteries Take-Back Programs
These programs are designed to keep contaminants out of landfills, as all three types of these items contain toxic materials. A few companies offer “rewards” in exchange for recycling. For example, Staples offers $2 back in rewards per recycled ink cartridge. This creates brand loyalty, as you are more likely to buy your ink there regularly if you are trying to use this rewards program. In fact, you have to – their rules state that you can earn the $2 per cartridge “if the member has spent at least $30 in ink and/or toner purchases at Staples over the previous 180 days.” This is only a good deal if you buy enough ink to keep up with that. At least these cartridges are likely recycled. Other companies, such as HP, have many ways for consumers and businesses to recycle their ink cartridges and electronics.6
Many hardware stores and home improvement centers, such as Lowe’s and The Home Depot, take back used compact fluorescent light bulbs and rechargeable batteries. Batteries Plus Bulbs will accept certain types of light bulbs and batteries, although not alkaline. For alkaline battery recycling, see my article from earlier this year.
The textile industry is notoriously wasteful, especially now that major retailers promote new fashion trends weekly rather than seasonally. But there are a few companies that have take-back programs. Patagonia may be the best example of this as they’ve had the program for a long time, don’t push new trends weekly, and stand by the quality of their products. Patagonia accepts all its products for recycling if the items can no longer be repaired or donated.7
Nike’s Reuse-A-Shoe product claims to take their old shoes grind them down to use in performance products and sports surfaces.8 The NorthFace and Levi’s are among others that take back some of their clothing for reuse or recycling. However, please know that clothing is so disposable in western society that second-hand clothing is overwhelming other parts of the world, creating waste problems in those areas. The solution for textiles is to buy less clothing, wear your clothing for a long time, and buy second-hand when possible.
Take-back programs offer a solution for some items that are hard to dispose of, such as computers, batteries, and light bulbs. It isn’t clear if these programs result in real recycling. Sometimes the companies are not transparent about their take-back program details. The real solution is for companies to invest in a system that can make these items reusable, in a circular economy or closed-loop system. We also need to consume less in general.
In my next post, I’ll examine two types of take-back programs that have high success rates. Thanks for reading, and please subscribe!
“If you want to eliminate waste in your life – and in the world – the answers will always come down to one simple thing: consume differently.” -Tom Szaky