Help me understand recycling and circularity

Help me understand something about recycling and circularity, please.

This post was originally published on LinkedIn, and generated quite a discussion. I encourage you to share your thoughts in the comments to keep the discussion going.

With all the talk and publicity saying “recycling is a myth,” and industry pushback with campaigns saying “recycling is real,” I can’t help but wonder what the alternative is for a global civilization of 8 billion people relying on materials and packaging basically all day every day.

Yes, I believe in a circular economy, but I also see the realities of the world and know that we have a lot of work to do, so please stay with me and help me understand…

The crops we grow, the food we eat, the buildings we build, the children we raise, the weather we face, the gatherings we enjoy, the gifts we give—all of these rely on materials, both for production and transport, and those materials need to go somewhere, right? Whether reused, repurposed, repaired, redistributed, or recycled, eventually our goods and products come to the end of their life. So tell me… what then? What is the ideal-yet-realistic future state for capturing and collecting all this stuff? All the streams of materials—products, byproducts, and waste—coming out of households, small businesses, industrial facilities and more. How do you propose we capture and redistribute those materials? Sure, the ideal is to eliminate all waste, but that’s not happening anytime soon, so what now?

Yes, we need to move from a linear economy to a circular one. Yes, we need to keep materials in use as long as possible. Yes, we need to design for circularity. And while I fully believe that the ideal is an entirely circulareconomy, we’re incredibly far from that, and even if we have that, we need a way to capture, collect, and process the end-of-life materials so that we can put them back into the system, right? And that capture point is our recycling infrastructure….no? Help me challenge these assumptions.

I believe in reduction, reuse, refill, and all the Rs. I think recycling is the last resort beyond repair, repurpose, rethink, and so on—but at the end of the day, we need mechanisms and systems in place to capture and collect all the disparate materials being distributed throughout our cities and countries that have reached the end of their life, right?

I’m just looking through the devastating metrics of our American and global capture rates and find myself wondering…if not this, then what else? We have the infrastructure in place. It’s far from optimal, but it’s there. Yes, it was founded by the plastics industry, but now we’re here, with these polycrises needing to be addressed, so we might as well build upon what we already have, right? A step forward is progress, which is how we make it to the goal of a circular system, right?