Mail-back schemes to reduce plastic packaging waste face one significant hurdle—human nature

parcel on conveyor beltIf it seems like recycling has taken a back seat lately to other forms of reducing plastic waste, that’s probably because it has. Recent announcements by Loop Industries Inc. (Montréal) touting its “upcycling” process and Terracycle’s “Loop” initiative have been hogging headlines. Both initiatives involve shipping back empty, single-use food, beverage and other consumer goods containers either for "depolymerization" and reprocessing into new polymer materials (Loop Industries) or for thorough cleaning by Terracycle (Trenton, NJ) and refilling by consumer goods OEMs. Both methods appear to be not only cumbersome for consumers but also require large amounts of energy, despite what life cycle analyses supposedly prove.

I actually think that Loop Industries’ methodology of depolymerization might be a better answer, as we need some way to collect the massive amounts of plastics floating in the Pacific Ocean and find something to do with them. My first option would be waste-to-energy (WTE), but if not that, then certainly Loop Industries might be able to make a dent.

A recent release from Loop Industries announced yet another partnership with a consumer products manufacturer, Drinkworks. Drinkworks is described as a “design-driven, user-centered beverage innovation company defining new ways to make it remarkably simple to enjoy a variety of bar-quality drinks at home.” Drinkworks recently teamed up with Keurig Dr Pepper to launch the Drinkworks Home Bar, which uses proprietary pods made from 100% recyclable materials. Users of the Drinkworks Home Bar will be able to return used cocktail, brew and cider pods to Loop Industries for recycling and upcycling.

This mail-back process involves filling pre-paid, recyclable Loop and Drinkworks co-branded pouches with empty pods; sealing them up; and dropping them in the mail. A complimentary mail-back pouch is included in the Home Bar packaging, and more pouches are available for free upon request. Pouches will be available online and in retail locations, as Drinkworks expands later this year.

These mail-back schemes require a great deal of consumer participation and cooperation, and you have to wonder if they will be successful, considering how difficult it is simply to get people to put their recyclables into a curbside bin for automatic pickup every week. I’m dubious.

Recently, the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI; Washington, DC) announced its 2019 Advocacy Agenda, which recognizes new industry challenges and opportunities at the local, state, federal and international levels related to market development and economic opportunity, international trade, energy and the environment, and more. Given China’s “National Sword” policy implemented last year, “as well as other shifting trade policies around the world,” ISRI notes that greater pressure is being brought to bear on the “need for market development and economic opportunity for the recycling industry,” said ISRI President Robin Wiener.

ISRI will be working directly with governments and industry partners to promote opportunities to use recycled content in infrastructure development and in the manufacturing of new products.

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