California’s Approach to the Recycling Crisis is Garbage

Robert Bikel
Professor of Strategy and Director of the Socially, Environmentally & Ethically Responsible (SEER) Program at Pepperdine Graziadio Business School.

California is at the epicenter of a nation-wide recycling crisis. Recent failures at the legislative level highlight the acute challenges facing government, businesses, and consumers beyond the current untenable overconsumption-based economy to one that puts sustainability – in every sense of the word – at the forefront.

During the 2019 legislative session, California legislature did not pass important legislation which would have established aggressive benchmarks for plastic manufacturers to make certain products recyclable and dramatically reduce the number of single-use containers on store shelves and landfills. The legislation would have also raised the possibility of banning certain products if changes were not instituted.

As with many complex issues, battle lines were intractable. Supporters said companies should take more responsibility for their products. Opponents said it was unfair to have “cradle to grave” responsibility for products, warning that costs would ultimately be passed down to consumers.  

This disconnect is part of the problem in the recycling crisis. It also represents the larger challenges of regional and global sustainability. Looking at issues simply through the impact of one or just a few sectors of stakeholders puts all solutions at risk.

Because of the state’s geographic location, we are gatekeeper for much of the U.S.’s recycling, which is sent to China and Indonesia through the Port of Los Angeles.

Thanks to foreign countries’ decisions to refuse the vast majority of our recyclable goods for processing, our system has broken down. As recycling piles up in warehouses, we now are forced to admit that our approach to recycling was unacceptably fragile and more importantly, the thinking behind it fundamentally flawed. Shipping our trash to another country was magical thinking; out of sight, out of mind. As Cradle to Cradle author William McDonnough would say, throwing (or sending) trash away is a fallacy: there is no “away.”

Given the moral responsibility to make sure our needs are met without sacrificing the ability of future generations to meet their needs, all stakeholders must realign their thinking and dedicate themselves to a better approach to recycling solutions — and the California legislature can play a key role in turning good intent into sound policy.

Based on its strong history of commitment to the principles of environmental sustainability, California can base a new approach to recycling on the idea of the Circular Economy – a heretofore aspirational goal of “closing the loop” on the global economy. The journey to circularity requires a massive rethinking of our relationship to the material economy — for businesses and consumers.

Private companies like Coca-Cola are already looking at how they can help reach the United Nation’s ambitious Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), considered the blueprint for sustainability. PWC has a portal on how businesses can connect with the SDGs to better understand which of the 17 goals provide the opportunity for tangible targets that can be met by 2030. These are important steps, but in order to meaningfully address business still need to face hard questions at the business model level that promote waste as recent eye-opening inquiries into “fast fashion” and our food systems illustrate.

Similarly, consumers need to revise their approach to consumerism, and recycling is a good place to start. Like shipping our recycling cares out of the port, considering the entirety of recycling to be putting boxes and plastic in the blue bin is “magical thinking.” Recycling for plastic bottles or aluminum cans only captures 20% of waste; 80% get dumped into trash cans. 

Consumers must employ broader thinking about their consumption especially adopting reusable containers. Even in Europe where consumers show willingness to engage in “circular behaviors” such as “recommerce” and collaborative consumption, there is a gap between attitudes and behaviors: a mixture of convenience presented by the current system and price/logistic frictions keep consumers from meaningfully altering critical behaviors.

Some may see this situation as a classic negative feedback loop where consumers’ preferences for convenience prompts business to cater to those desires which generates ever more waste.  But this needn’t be the case. Business has the resources and capacity to innovate; consumers have the purchasing power and an overall desire for sustainability. Other institutions, like the California legislature, must challenge the status quo and establish the infrastructure to push for change.

The legislature is to be commended for passing two important bills — Assembly Bill 54 (Ting), which allocates grants for a mobile recycling pilot and Assembly Bill 792 (Ting), which boosts recycling markets and requires beverage containers to be made with 50% recycled content by 2030. But more action is needed to significantly disrupt the state’s approach to recycling. 

The legislature failed to pass two other bills, Senate Bill 54 and Assembly Bill 1080, which would have eliminated 75% of single-use containers by 2030 and required packaging to be recyclable or compostable by then as well. This more comprehensive approach would reduce the glut of unmarketable plastics statewide and lay the groundwork for a revamped California recycling industry. More importantly, this approach would have demanded engagement from almost every stakeholder — a transformative approach to production and consumerism.

The California legislature has an opportunity to reconsider this approach in 2020. In doing so, the state will again assume its rightful position as meaningful critical partner to both industry and individual consumers charting a course towards a sustainable future.

Robert Bikel is a Professor of Strategy and Director of the Socially, Environmentally & Ethically Responsible (SEER) Program at Pepperdine Graziadio Business School. The 2020 SEER Symposium will be held February 28 at Le Méridien Delfina, Santa Monica.

 

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