The fairy tale of recycling — and it is a fairy tale — does not start at the register, or the curb, or even hovering over the kitchen trash can, licking the yogurt top clean, and wondering if it’s good enough. No, the story we consumers believe in begins in our hearts, put there lovingly by Sesame Street puppets, parents, and teachers: Place your depleted bottle in that recycling bin and soon enough it will be reincarnated — or smooshed or melted down or however, whatever — into something new. Maybe the two of you will meet again. We are a generation raised to believe in recycling. Too bad it rarely happens.
Only nine percent of all plastic waste ever produced has actually been turned into something that we were then able to use again (i.e., recycled). Wait, what? And also: Wait, why?
There are two main reasons. One, that waste has to be disposed of perfectly correctly, which is difficult even for those with the best intentions. A bottle cap, a shard of glass, traces of tomato soup… they contaminate the entire bin and typically condemn everything in it to landfill-ville.
But honestly, the stuff was probably headed there anyway because of the second reason: For waste to be recycled, someone needs to want it. And pretty much no one does. (The exception is aluminum — there’s money to be made there, and more often than not, it gets recycled.) China was willing to take recyclable trash for a while, but that party ended a couple of years ago with the country’s ban on the import of foreign trash.
So where does that leave us? With a new sustainability motto, already promulgated by countries across the globe: reduce, reuse, recycle, refuse. “Buy less, use less, buy in bulk, use resealable containers,” says Sonya Lunder of the Sierra Club’s Gender, Equity & Environment program the most influential grassroots environmental organization in the US. And yes, do your best to sort your trash. But do not pass off all the responsibility to a recycle bin. It’s on you.
Thankfully, experts are here to help. In a world where “recycling” doesn’t exactly mean what we thought it meant but we still want clean hair and crimson lips, how do we imagine a world without packaging? It requires expert foresight and a little wishful thinking. Julie Corbett is the closest thing to a sustainable packaging oracle that we’ve got.
Corbett, the founder of Ecologic a sustainable packaging solution company based in the US, is behind such innovations as Seed Phytonutrients’ shower-friendly paper shampoo bottles. And the future she sees might not be what you expect. Or what you want to hear. You may have heard about the problem with pumps. Often presented as the white whale of the sustainable packaging community, pumps are typically made out of two or more types of plastic and a metal spring.
Short story: “The pump will never be recyclable, no matter what people say,” says Corbett. She predicts there will be a new breed of pump, made of recycled plastic, which is better than the current situation. But her ultimate solution is a bit more radical: Standardized pumps, purchased somewhat like a knife set, and used for decades for everything from cleansing oil to dish soap.
“I call it the liquefication of America,” says Corbett. “We’re addicted to plastics because we’ve liquefied everything.” The only way out is to move toward solid and powdered products — and to invest in new beauty technology. (Like a just-add-water moisturizer, for example. We’re ready!) But even bars are not devoid of packaging — where else would the ingredient list go? But Corbett has a solution for that too: “It’s going to involve technology. Maybe at the store, you’ll have a touch screen that will tell you what the ingredients are before you buy.”
For those wondering why we can’t just use glass for all that liquid sloshing around: Glass is heavy, expensive, and carbon-polluting to ship. And that’s just part of the problem: The recycling process for glass releases more greenhouse gases than plastic or aluminum do. And it pretty easily pollutes the recycling stream.
“Everyone is asking why [the big beauty brands] don’t use more glass,” says Corbett. “It’s because they’ve all made carbon commitments to lower their footprints, and glass will increase them.” Instead let’s ask the big beauty brands another question: “Where can I buy parchment-wrapped wafers that mix with water to make a facial essence?”
Recycling giant TerraCycle’s Loop program, which launched last year, has a solution to the packaging problem: What if we used reusable, refillable packaging for…every single product in the world? The concept is a simple return to the days of the milkman, only now you’re putting down a deposit on a reusable aluminum shampoo bottle, delivered to (and later picked up at) your door in a reusable fabric box.
You can now get Pantene Pro-V shampoo, Gillette razors, and more in nine states, Washington, D.C., and two regions in France, and there are plans to expand to the West Coast, Canada, Japan, and the U.K. this year. Loop’s service, ambitious and utopian, provides a hint that refillable, standard packaging could be the future.
Originally published on Allure.com