Next week we will be celebrating our 53rd Earth Day on Saturday, April 22nd. As the black and white NYT photo in this post shows, the very first Earth Day in 1970 was a VERY big deal. Later, in 1987 sustainability became a frequent topic of conversation, especially environmental sustainability. This new focus on sustainability re-energized Earth Day and April 22nd, once again was a day of many great works, ideas, and good intentions.
By the year 2000 we were all well acquainted with green speak, including terms like eco-friendly, source reduction, closed loop, earth friendly, biodegradable, compostable, and we were all talking about the 3 R’s in packaging sustainability, etc. In the year 2000, when we started our company, packaging was considered a major culprit and contributor to the waste problem in the USA. That is when we decided to focus on how we could make the packaging we offer “greener by design”, using less materials, and making sure those materials are easily recycled or reused. However, I am sorry to say, the interest level within our industry and the country in general is not nearly as high as it once was.
So, why has Earth Day interest dwindled?
I truly believe part of the problem is much like George W. Bush’s ill-advised 2003 “Mission Accomplished” celebration, many Americans believe the waste war has been won, most gratefully without their direct involvement or contribution. They mistakenly believe most of our waste is recyclable and the majority of it is indeed being recycled.
Here are three misconceptions we hear more often than we should:
Most Americans are recycling the waste they create.
According to the EPA, in 1960 only 5% of Americans recycled any of their waste. In 2022, 32% of Americans did some recycling. That may sound like a substantial increase, but when you realize it has taken 62 years to engage just one-third of the population, we obviously have a long way to go.
We are doing a much better job of recycling plastic.
Sorry. The truth is that we still only recycled approximately 5% of plastic waste. That is not all consumers fault because organizations like Green Matters estimate that our capacity for recycling plastic is only capable of processing approx. 22% of plastic water and beverage bottle waste alone.
Almost all paper waste is recycled and used to create 100% recycled paper products.
Nope, wrong again. We are much better at recycling paper, compared to plastic or metal, however we only recycle approximately 66% of all the “recyclable” paper waste we create. The use and availability for 100% recycled content paper products depends largely on the application and the print requirements. In this area, the packaging industry excels, where most corrugated boxes, for example, are recycled and used to make, you guessed it, new corrugated boxes.
Two ways we can improve our national recycling initiatives.
The planet wide challenge of environmental sustainability is so big and so complex, many believe it is not a problem with an achievable solution. As a big believer in the “one bite at a time” approach, I prefer common-sense solutions. With respect to the environmental gurus and white paper authors in the world, here are two very simple suggestions:
Continue environmental studies and classes through high school and even college.
The earth day generation you see in that 1970 photo is slowly dying off. Shouldn’t we be teaching environmental awareness and cause/effect to the next generation of consumers and taxpayers? My daughter who is a now sophomore in high school, admitted the last time Earth Day was celebrated or even mentioned in school, was in fifth grade. If that is true across the country, aren’t we losing that next, potentially great environmentally concerned generation?
Increase our plastic recycling capacity.
If Green Matters and other organizations are correct, we only recycle somewhere between 4 and 8% of our plastic waste. I can’t help but notice we don’t see a lot of plastic bottle roadside trash, in Michigan or other states who have a strict deposit and recycling program. However, we can’t really promote a plastic waste recycling requirement until we figure out what we are going to do with it. Right now, too much of that plastic waste, ends up in landfills, right next to unrecycled plastics. Considering the many strange causes our government is spending our money on, shouldn’t building more plastic waste processing plants be somewhere on the priority list?
Earth Day should still be a big deal now and forever.
Our environmental problems are not going away, certainly not on our current path or pace. We worry about the massive national debt we are leaving our children and grandchildren, and we should be VERY concerned about that. However, a future with no debt (as unlikely as that may be) is of little positive consequence, if that generation doesn’t have clean air and water to drink. Or is smothered by the waste we and past generations have left them.
Let’s all make Earth Day a big deal again and celebrate and encourage each other to do the right thing again.