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Recycling - What an Attention Hog!

Let’s face it, recycling is a giant attention hog. Of the three Rs (reduce, reuse, and recycle), “Recycle” gets more than its fair share of time in the limelight. It is an interesting topic to discuss and recycling makes us feel good. It’s fun to talk about all the latest ideas for converting recyclable materials into new materials and products. 
We also feel good knowing the packaging and containers we buy can be delivered to a household recycling center or picked up from curbside bins and then sorted, cleaned, and reprocessed into new materials. We feel less guilty about how our purchases may be contributing to the earth’s troubles. In fact, in a recent study¹ conducted by Shelton Group (, 80% of those surveyed agree that recycling is the bare minimum we can do for the environment and 76% agree that recycling makes us feel better about our purchases. But how much do you really know about what your municipality is doing with those recyclable materials?

• When was the last time you investigated what’s happening to the recyclables you are putting into that blue bin?
• Do you know how much of that material is getting into a recycling stream vs. the landfill?
• Have you ever investigated exactly what your local municipality is doing with those recyclables?

If not, you should! I think you will be surprised. And, some of you, will be downright disappointed by what you learn.

What can you do about it? Put pressure on your local government to do better. Tell your friends and neighbors what you learned and encourage them to do the same.

Unfortunately, the story doesn’t get much better from here. Just because a material is recyclable, does not mean there is an economic outlet for the recycled material. It is often more costly to re-claim and re-process recyclables into new products.  It is important everyone understand exactly what it takes to not only re-claim and re-use recyclable materials but also what is the environmental impact of a product over its lifetime. This is where understanding the full life cycle is so important. In brief, a life-cycle assessment looks at the following...

• What are the steps a product takes as it moves through its life cycle from extraction of raw materials to final disposal?
• What are the emissions associated with each step related to material extraction, processing, distribution, product use, collection after use, repair/recycling, and final disposal?

I point all this out not because I am opposed to recycling. Recycling has its rightful place in reducing waste but can sometimes be viewed as a panacea. So, if this is the case, what can we do right now? Reduce! “Reduce” is the 1st “R” and can be thought of as the number “1” in the 1-10-100Rule of Total Quality Management. Ask “How can I reduce the amount of packaging and container waste in the first-place?” After all, it is much better to stop waste at the source. Anything else is like mopping a floor, while the sink is still overflowing. Turn off the faucet! Understand the full life cycle of the packaging materials. Look for lighter weight, more sustainable options and alternatives.

The team here at Winpak employs this approach in packaging design. Many of its innovations are oriented towards the creation of lighter weight packaging; solutions that get the job done, while reducing their environmental impact. Also, get involved locally by challenging your community and municipality to do a better job of ensuring recyclable materials do find their way into lean, efficient recycling streams.

Lean? Yes. Lean principles are obsessed with the elimination of all forms of waste: Defects, Over-Production, Waiting, Non-Utilized Talent, Transportation, Inventory, Motion, and Extra-Processing. Next time we are going to look at how these lean principles can help us think better about all the ways we help reduce our collective impact on the planet. Until then…

¹ - “Engaging Middle America in Recycling Solutions”, p. 29, Shelton Group
Greg Powell
Greg Powell
President, Winpak Portion Packaging & Equipment Solutions
Sauk Village, IL United States

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