3p Weekend: Innovative Reuse Can Solve Our Waste Problem

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With a busy week behind you and the weekend within reach, there’s no shame in taking things a bit easy on Friday afternoon. With this in mind, every Friday TriplePundit will give you a fun, easy read on a topic you care about. So, take a break from those endless email threads and spend five minutes catching up on the latest trends in sustainability and business.

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America has a staggering waste problem. We generate over 250 million tons of trash each year, according to the EPA, and our recycling rate is stagnant at around 34 percent. The remainder ends up in our ever-swelling landfills, which number in the thousands. (If you’re still not convinced of this growing crisis, check out this interactive map that shows how quickly landfills have ballooned across the country.)

As governments and advocacy groups rally to convince Americans to recycle more, greater innovation is needed to spur reuse and recycling — and create profitable end-uses for recovered material.

To examine how innovative reuse and recycling can address our growing waste problem, we broke down America’s largest waste streams (according to EPA data) and highlighted company and nonprofit efforts that cut them down to size.

Paper: 27 percent of our waste stream

PulpWorks' post-consumer recycled packaging is completely compostable at end-of-life.
PulpWorks’ post-consumer recycled packaging is completely compostable at end-of-life.

Americans generate a staggering 68 million tons of paper and paperboard waste every year, according to the most recent EPA data. The good news is that paper has a 63 percent recovery rate, the highest among our common waste materials.

That said, paper recovery and reuse presents a challenge: Since paper fibers shorten and degrade during the recycling process, paper is usually downcycled — leaving company execs racking their brains for innovative applications for recovered paper.

Headquartered in San Rafael, California, PulpWorks may have cracked the code. Co-founded by Paul Tasner, an alum of sustainability darling Method, PulpWorks uses post-consumer recycled paper to replace those annoying blister packs in packaging (typically made from PVC, a hard-to-recycle plastic resin).

The resulting packaging is frustration-free and completely compostable at end-of-life. The product received accolades the world over, including placing as a finalist in the Sustainable Brands Innovation Open in London in 2013.

Food: 14.6 percent

The U.S. wastes up to 40 percent of all the edible food it produces. Put another way: On average, every American family loses $1,600 to $2,000 each year to food that is purchased but not eaten. That loss is more than what it costs to feed a family of four for an entire month — a heartbreaking statistic considering 48.1 million Americans live in food insecure households.

The best way to prevent food waste is to reduce it at the source. But even when employing best efforts, U.S. households and businesses often still see leftovers end up in the bin. To tackle this problem on the business level, the EPA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture launched the U.S. Food Waste Challenge to educate and incentivize small businesses to reduce food waste. At the municipal level, cities like Seattle and San Francisco offer curbside composting to ensure that uneaten food can be put to good use rather than languishing in a landfill.

But by far the highest-value way to reduce food waste is to recover the material while it is still edible and re-route it to hungry families and individuals. Due to continued advocacy from stakeholders ranging from national nonprofits to celebrity chefs, the food waste problem is finally emerging on the national stage — and, thankfully, so are food-rescue organizations.

City Harvest collects thousands of pounds of edible food daily in New York City; Food Shift and FoodRunners do similar work in the San Francisco Bay Area; and dozens of other groups are working to recapture food waste and eliminate hunger across the country. To find a solution near you, check out the food rescue locator from Sustainable America.

Plastics: 12.8 percent

Preserve makes everything from tableware to razors and toothbrushes from recycled No. 5 plastic -- and offers takeback for each of its products.
Preserve makes everything from tableware to razors and toothbrushes from recycled No. 5 plastic — and offers takeback for each of its products.

In only a few decades, plastic has emerged as a ubiquitous aspect of American life. We generate over 32 million tons of plastic waste annually. While it’s crucial to increase the recovery of plastics — only 3 million tons were recycled in 2013 — it’s equally vital to create end-use applications for the material in order to keep the recycling process economically viable.

Luckily, a growing number of American companies are turning to recycled plastic as a feedstock — and they’re emerging as cult favorites among the sustainability set. Founded in 1996, household products company Preserve was one of the first of such companies to emerge on the scene.

The Certified B Corp creates kitchen, bath and tabletop items from 100 percent recycled No. 5 plastic. This resin, which is used for common packaging items like yogurt cups, isn’t accepted in many curbside programs — meaning the bulk ends up in our landfills. Preserve not only offers stylish (and recyclable) items made from No. 5 plastic, but also provides drop-off locations for the material in partnership with Whole Foods Market. In addition to your yogurt cups and butter tubs, Preserve will also take back any of its products — from tableware to toothbrushes — for recycling.

Textiles: 9 percent

This summer, Savers erected the Give A Sh!rt installation in Toronto’s Yonge-Dundas Square to raise awareness for textile reuse and recycling.
This summer, Savers erected the Give A Sh!rt installation in Toronto’s Yonge-Dundas Square to raise awareness for textile reuse and recycling.

Americans generate over 15 million tons of textile waste annually, according to the most recent EPA data. The vast majority (almost 85 percent) of this unwanted clothing and other textiles is sent to our landfills. But 95 percent could be reused or recycled, according to the 2016 State of Reuse Report from global thrift retailer Savers.

“Since many synthetic fabrics cannot be recycled, reuse provides a second life, possibly even a third or fourth life, for clothing and other textiles and keeps them out of landfills,” Tony Shumpert, vice president of reuse and recycling for Savers, wrote in an op/ed on TriplePundit. “Confusion over what is recyclable and reusable plays a key role in adding to the 26 billion pounds of textiles people sent to landfills each year.”

Some have qualms about donating those ripped jeans or stained T-Shirts to a local thrift store. But thrift retailers like Savers will responsibility direct every scrap of your unwanted textile waste. Unsellable items are recycled into necessities like cleaning towels and insulation. And for wearable garments, Savers in particular has a multifaceted reuse solution that keeps on giving.

Through longstanding relationships with nonprofit partners, Savers turns unwanted clothing into donations for groups like Big Brothers Big Sisters. That means last season’s jacket can not only find a new wearer, but also help create a new life for an at-risk child. Talk about a win-win!

Metal: 9 percent

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When it comes to reuse and recycling, metal is something of a wonder material. Most metals are infinitely recyclable and do not lose quality during the recycling process. Even better: Using recycled metal actually saves money and energy compared to virgin feedstocks.

With this information in mind, you’d think U.S. metal recycling rates would be a bit higher — we recovered around 34 percent in 2013. But the good news is that, when metal is recovered, it often returns to its original use — creating something of a closed loop.

Take, for example, the most common household metal: aluminum. Due to seamless recycling, recycled aluminum can be turned into a new beverage container and appear back on a store shelf in as little as 90 days.

And the average beverage can is increasingly made from recycled material. Last year, aluminum processing firm Novelis announced a beverage can made from 100 percent recycled aluminum, with an impressive 90 percent coming from post-consumer content. Alcoa earned Cradle to Cradle certification for some of its products, an industry first, and is largely behind urging the industry to achieve a 75 percent recycling rate.

What do you think about these innovative recycling and reuse applications? Will they encourage you to recycle more? Tell us about it in the comments section or on social media using the hashtag #RethinkReuse. 

Image credits: 1) Pexels; 2) PulpWorks; 3) Preserve; 4) Courtesy of Savers/Value Village; 5) Pexels

Video courtesy of the Ad Council

Mary Mazzoni

Based in Philadelphia, Mary Mazzoni is the senior editor of TriplePundit. She is also a freelance journalist with a passion for storytelling and sustainability. Her work has appeared in the Philadelphia Daily News, Earth911, the Huffington Post, Sustainable Brands and the Daily Meal.

Mary is a lifelong vegetarian with an interest in climate resilience, clean tech and social justice. You can contact her at mary@triplepundit.com.

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