Green Washing and the Problem with Recycling

As a B-Corp certified company committed to building a more sustainable world, RTS is dedicated to providing innovative waste management services that facilitate proper recycling. However, greenwashing and fraudulent recycling practices are, sadly, part of an industry that is struggling to keep up with demand. Here we look at some of those issues and how our detailed diversion metrics and waste stream analytics are crucial to solving these problems.

Across the US, citizens are diligently sorting recyclables—separating paper from plastic, washing glass bottles and jars, taking out the organics on a weekly basis. In fact, the increasing number of people embracing recycling is cause for some optimism, with the amount of waste being diverted from landfill more than doubling since the 1990s. Even corporations seem to be catching on to the idea that responsible recycling is the future, and today, there are countless programs designed to minimize waste and increase recycling in all its forms.

However, while we bask in the warm and fuzzy glow of our newfound eco-ethics, all is not well within the recycling industry. A litany of issues is slowly being uncovered as the industry grows, with certain organizations and companies hiding behind consumer uncertainty while engaging in opaque practices. From collection, to the transportation and processing of recyclables, each stage of the journey is affected and those involved are increasingly turning to greenwashing to sell services and products for huge profits.

What is Greenwashing?

Greenwashing is a term that first appeared in the 1980s, describing the corporate practice of advertising a company or product as significantly more eco-friendly than it was in reality. At its conception, the term specifically addressed the glossy advertisements of oil companies, highlighting a jarring juxtaposition between images of thriving eco-systems that were being used in adverts, and an industry that was responsible for countless ecological crimes. Today, the term has been expanded to include any claims that gloss over the ecological realities, and is particularly relevant to the current state of the recycling industry.

For example, in 2016 it was estimated that China imported two thirds of the world’s plastic waste for processing. In 2017, however, China announced a broad ranging ban on waste imports, effectively severing a crucial link in the chain. Recent reports from the UK have highlighted how many supposedly responsible companies responded, and without a viable outlet, millions of tons of plastic waste were illegally dumped in the ocean or simply sent to landfill. Perhaps most tellingly, these companies stuck resolutely to their eco credentials, only admitting to any wrongdoing as the scandal came to light in the press.

What’s Next for the Recycling Industry?

The dramatic U-turn from China has highlighted a severe lack of infrastructure in the countries that produce the most waste—namely the US and Europe. In truth, we simply cannot process the amount of waste we create each year, and so while recycling may be seen by many consumers as the perfect answer to a growing problem, it is in fact a last resort. More emphasis should be placed on the reduction of potential waste materials from at all junctures of society.

It is clear that greater investment is needed within the recycling industry if we hope to make a dent in the growing piles of waste. This investment must be in the form of larger and more efficient processing facilities, but also how the industry accounts for the materials that are supposedly recycled. Both governments and consumers must be able to verify that waste is, in fact, recycled and not simply dumped. Until this is the case, greenwashing and the recycling industry are likely to be firm friends as we head towards an uncertain future.

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