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Opinion: Do We Practice What We Preach?

Have you ever looked into the trash bin at a sustainable packaging conference? Prepare to be disappointed when you do.

A real image of a trash bin at a sustainable packaging conference.
A real image of a trash bin at a sustainable packaging conference.

We’re currently in the meatiest portion of the spring conference season. Packaging World editors attend a lot of packaging conferences, expos, and events, and as you would expect, many of them focus on sustainability. Because we’re in packaging, recycling tends to be the biggest topic within the broader sustainability theme.

At these events, I have an admittedly oddball habit of auditing trash bins. My anecdotal findings might be depressing if they weren’t so revealing of the problem we face with recycling. Next time you’re at a sustainable packaging conference, I challenge you to look in the garbage. Try to mask your surprise when you see a mix of PP coffee lids, aluminum Diet Coke cans, PET Coke bottles, and thermoformed PET drink cups, all co-mingled in the trash. This even occurs when there’s a single-stream recycling bin right next to the trash can. It also happens at those well-marked but still somehow confusing disposal stations that we see in major expo halls. They clearly state where paper, plastic, and aluminum ought to go. In my experience, they’re all like that. No conference or expo is immune; recycling adherence is almost coincidental. 

Shouldn’t the speakers and attendees in these halls be among the most adept with materials and recyclability? And given the subject matter floating around the room, shouldn’t recycling at least be top-of-mind? I should add here, I have no doubt that I've been guilty of this, too. I try, but I'm not absolving myself of this behavior.

As a fellow perpetrator of what I'm criticizing, I have insider knowledge of a few factors that may be at play here. One might be that those conference attendees are too smart for their own (or the greater) good. Many folks in the know wouldn’t necessarily be wrong to assume that, at a private hotel conference hall, that Diet Coke can isn’t getting recycled anyway, regardless of which bin it ends up in. Why make the extra effort? And at a basic human level, what’s one Diet Coke can? Of course, extrapolating that piece of human-nature to 8 billion plus folks is a problem.

Also, we’re all traveling out of state to most of these conferences, and waste collection doesn’t always look the same at home as it does where we land. I hail from Chicago, where it’s claimed we have single-stream recycling that’s sorted post-collection (a dubious claim, but that’s another issue). Some states are seeing benefits from dual-stream recycling that asks residents (or for our purposes, attendees at conferences and expos) to do some of the sortation up front, upon disposal. It might make for cleaner bales, but it unavoidably results in confusion and diversion of valuable recyclable material to landfill. Plus, at private hotel exposition halls and conference centers, all bets are off.

I suspect the biggest factor is convenience. Between sessions, attendees are likely off to the restroom and then to respond to that urgent email they received during the aluminum recycling presentation. Proper disposal of that Diet Coke can is an afterthought, and there might not even be a blue bin available. Limited by basic human nature, we can only assure adherence by making recycling effortless, indistinguishable from all other trash disposal.

In Europe, some interesting sensor-laden active and intelligent packaging solutions appear to be on the rise for sortation. Chemical (advanced) recycling plants that represent another potential silver bullet to recycling are popping up all over. And perhaps AI will be doing the sortation for us before long, anyhow.

But between now and then, can anyone tell me what to do with this thermoformed PET tray? I have no idea if whatever MRF or reprocessor ends up receiving it (and in Chicago, even that’s not guaranteed) is equipped to handle thermoformed PET’s more crystalline intrinsic viscosity. 

And if those of us who blather about this everyday are completely lost in the weeds, what can we expect from the average consumer? PW

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