Can we fix recycling? Some companies are trying

"People want to do the right thing, but we have to make it convenient—to make it frictionless. And that's what we aim to do."

Image Credit: Recycle Smart

The recycling industry in America is broken, but some companies are trying to make it better.

The U.S. relies on single-stream recycling systems, wherein recyclables of all sorts are placed into the same bin to be sorted and cleaned at recycling facilities. This seemingly simple system actually results in very little being correctly recycled and requires more manpower on the processing side to sort through what well-meaning consumers incorrectly toss into their recycling bins.

The issue, a new study shows, is that Americans want to recycle, but don’t know how to do it correctly. The study was conducted by SK Group, who polled 1,500 U.S. adults in May about their attitudes towards and actions concerning sustainable packaging. They found that 72 percent of Americans are likely to give preference to products that use packaging that can be easily recycled or reused. However, because they don’t understand what can actually be recycled, a major disconnect occurs between intention and outcome.

As it turns out, only two in five Americans feel “completely confident” that they are recycling correctly at home, the data showed. 42 percent of the same study population were not aware that some recyclable containers, such as plastic bottles, cannot be recycled unless you first remove labeling and other packaging materials. When dirty and labeled recyclables are tossed in with clean recycling from which labels have been stripped, they contaminate the entire bin. This results in tons of unnecessary waste.

Bottles and cans in a recycling bin.
Single-stream recycling bins don't always work to keep recyclables clean enough for processing. Nick Fewings / Unsplash

This is what motivated SKC Inc., an SK Group company, to develop Ecolabel — the first Shrink Sleeve Label (SSL) that doesn’t need to be removed from PET bottles for them to be properly recycled. Most current bottle labels are made from PETG or PVC and printed on with inks that run. These labels cannot be recycled along with plastic bottles in most recycling plants.

Bob Cowley, vice president of sales and marketing at SKC Inc., explained: “To properly recycle many PET bottles, the user has to remove the plastic sleeve prior to tossing it in a recycling container or the recycler needs to separate the label from the bottle… When it is recycled with the label on, there is a very high risk that either the ink [printed on the label] will bleed into the wash water and stain the recycled plastic or the mixture of ink and film will cause clumping. Both of these results contaminate the recycled material, forcing it to be thrown away.”

Ecolabel instead utilizes a special film that doesn’t clump and a washable ink that dissolves without contaminating the end product, Cowley said.

“This means that bottles with the Ecolabel SSL can be recycled in the same stream as the PET bottle,” he added. “The bottle as a whole — label and all — can be recycled.”

SKC Inc.'s new Ecolabel.
SKC Inc.'s new Ecolabel allows for PET bottles to be recycled "as is," with the label still on. SKC Inc.

Critically, this removes the “burden off the consumer and recyclers” while making participation in recycling that much easier. The end result is a much higher probability that recyclables won’t end up in a landfill, the plastic films expert said.

Recyclops, another startup working to address the recycling problem in America, is tackling the collection process by “changing the model entirely,” a company representative told EcoWatch. They’re innovating the recycling pickup process, using an Uber Eats-style phone app to facilitate the pickup of recyclables from areas that aren’t being serviced. This gets more clean recyclables to recycling centers for processing.

The sustainable living expert estimated that nearly 50 million households across the U.S. currently lack recycling options due to cost and logistical challenges. Many rural areas and smaller cities simply cannot afford to run a recycling program and cannot pay the increasing rates that private companies wish to charge. These are the communities he hopes to reach with Recyclops.

How it works: Recyclops leverages independent contractor drivers to complete recycling routes, thus creating income for locals and sustainable living options for residents.

Recyclops works closely with town and city officials before launching to garner their buy-in. On the customer side, they focus on education and access, regularly sending out recycling tips and inviting the community to cleanup days.

Once launched in a community, Recyclops uses their smart-routing app on mobile phones to create pickup routes for gig economy drivers who use their own vehicles to gather recycling from customers. This approach has made it easier for Recyclops to expand to smaller cities and towns that otherwise wouldn’t have easy access to a recycling stream, Smith said.

This also decreases the carbon footprint of recycling because there is no need for large dumpster trucks, which create more greenhouse gases, Smith said.

“Often, consumers give up on recycling when the hurdles [such as not having curbside recycling available or requiring drop-off] are too great, and we see those recyclables end up in landfills. Without intervention, we’ll see 12,000 metric tons of recyclables in landfills by 2050,” said Recyclops founder and CEO Ryan Smith. “Our model solves these logistical challenges which enables us to go into these underserved communities and begin operating right away.”

The company currently serves more than 10,000 households in nearly 100 cities across 10 states. In 2020 alone, they diverted more than 3 million pounds of recyclables from landfills.

Recyclops recently closed a $3 million seed round investment. The funding will allow the recycling-technology startup to further develop their proprietary technology and expand to 20 additional states. This will bring over 100,000 households currently without recycling options into the Recyclops network, the company representative said.

“We’re looking forward to being able to provide an option to these communities and continue our mission to innovate sustainable solutions,” Smith said.

Recyclops also requires recyclable items to be bagged separately and for cardboard to be isolated. This cuts down on contamination and creates cleaner recycling.

Finally, they are also working with brands like Glad to develop more sustainable packaging solutions and other companies like Imperfect Foods to help them recycle hard-to-recycle food packaging materials.

Smith concluded, “People want to do the right thing, but we have to make it convenient — to make it frictionless. And that’s what we aim to do.”


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