Sustainability Solution: Recycled Waste Market Innovation

Sustainability Solution: Recycled Waste Market Innovation

Call me old school but I still believe that recycling remains an important component of an overall green strategy in packaging. Many others focus on green design or engineering, with a sincere belief we will be able to invent ourselves out of this environmental problem. “Science will fix it,” some think as they look to the men and women working in labs to develop a new, quick, and low cost solution to a very large and old, problem.

Waste Handling Processes

It seems lately the attention has shifted to how we manage and handle waste. There is even talk that the new administration will offer tax credits for companies creating ways to better handle the paper, glass, plastics and other usable and potentially valuable waste we all help to create.

While I agree with the idea of improving the way we process waste, collecting it is not the problem, at least not yet. Our greatest recycling problem is that not enough people are doing it. Depending on who you talk to and what waste we are talking about, as a society we are likely recycling no more than 40 percent of what is recyclable.

What we need as soon as possible is mandatory recycling, and if that happens we will indeed have to innovate better ways of dealing with it. However, before we get to that point, we have to come up with a good answer for the most obvious of questions:  “OK, we collected it. Now what?”

So Much Waste, So Little Demand

That is the question no one seems to be answering. Let's assume we get everyone recycling up to 60 percent of the waste that is recyclable, thereby increasing the recycled waste stream by as much as 50 percent of what it is today? What happens then?

I am going to guess we will be swimming in it and the market for it will evaporate. Even though there has been a recent slight rise in recycled waste prices, we have seen how the corrugated, plastic and even aluminum markets nosedive when more is available than can be consumed.  We have to create a market for the waste we recycle because that is what will bring commodity prices up and will fuel and finance innovation, etc.

As ridiculous as this example is, please bear with me and you'll see the basis of my argument is correct. Let's say that we discover that recycled corrugated is excellent, healthy and inexpensive pet food. People would start buying the pet food, creating a demand and the price of recycled corrugated will rise sharply and quickly. That rise in cost will suddenly make corrugated worth recycling and worth processing. It is really quite simple: no demand, no incentive. Great demand, great incentive.

Advice To Our New “Green” President

President Obama has an excellent opportunity to become what his supporters expect him to be - the administration able and willing to help save the environment and the planet. Certainly we can all agree that the timing could not be better for him in terms of need or of political capital.

His administration should take a closer look at what some very smart, fast growing companies are doing with waste by up-cycling which is making waste something better and more valuable than it was before. There are even better ideas out there waiting to be perfected and marketed, and in my opinion, that is where our tax dollars should be spent.
If President Obama is serious about creating jobs as well as long term solutions, he should offer tax credits and incentives for innovation and design of recycled waste use, not for collection or storage processes. If the demand for this waste grows, the rest will follow naturally.

I doubt very much our government has ever created a market, but customer and application focused innovation has yet to fail us.

Dennis Salazar is the president of Salazar Packaging Inc.