Norway recycles 97% of all plastic bottles. Why can’t we?

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March 11, 2019

Plastic water bottleIn her article, “Has recycling become the elephant in the room?” Clare Goldsberry shares her disenchantment with recycling as an effective means to deal with plastic waste. She calls it “a monster that has created more problems than it has solved” and notes, correctly, that recycling is little more than a white elephant when it’s cheaper to buy virgin resin than recycled resin. Norway has an answer to that: Through an organization called Infinitum, the Nordic country has “created one of the most efficient and environmentally friendly ways of recycling plastic bottles,” writes ScienceAlert. The program reportedly allows Norway to recycle 97% of all plastic bottles used in the country. What’s more, 92% of those bottles yield such high-quality material that the resin can be used again and again, in some cases more than 50 times. What’s the secret? Incentivizing producers and consumers to do the right thing.

Norway places an environmental tax on all producers of plastic bottles; the more recycled content manufacturers use, the lower the tax. If they reach a collective recycling target of more than 90%, they don’t pay any tax at all.

Consumers, meanwhile, pay a deposit between 15 and 30 cents, depending on size, for each plastic bottle they buy. The deposit is redeemed when the bottles are brought back to the store or placed in a recovery machine. To be sure, that’s not terribly novel. Baby boomers like myself will remember collecting empty glass soda bottles and returning them to the grocery store for a few nickels that could be reinvested in hockey cards—I was living in Toronto at the time, which explains why I wasn't buying baseball cards—and bubble gum.

What is perhaps new here, and which makes the system work, is that producers and consumers are incentivized to recycle, and the dollar amount is significant enough to motivate behavioral change.

Infinitum’s program is not a magic bullet: Recycled material only provides 10% of the plastic used in bottles in the country, the rest—because oil is cheap—comes from virgin material, notes the Guardian, which reported on the initiative in July 2018. Nevertheless, it has inspired several countries, including the UK and Australia, to consider setting up a similar scheme.

I suspect that Goldsberry would have some issues with what amounts to a government program—“mandating specific percentages of recycled content in products through legislation won’t work, and could make things worse,” she writes in her article.

I believe, however, that a mosaic of programs is needed to deal with the plastic waste problem, and it would be foolish to dismiss something that works simply because it doesn’t completely solve the problem. As someone once told me, don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.

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