Future Challenge

Written By Iain Gulland - Director, Zero Waste Scotland  |  1 May 14

I have been invited by Coca Cola Enterprises to help them oversee their Recycling Challenge which they’re delivering in partnership with OpenIDEO, an online platform set up to solve challenges and social problems ideas from across the world.

The challenge set by Coca Cola Enterprises is to look for solutions to increasing ‘at home’ recycling. This world-wide call will hopefully gather insights and experience from other nations, cultures and walks of life, as well as inspire new innovative ideas. 

As ever, I’m intrigued by the experience and approaches of others around the world. Increased recycling and reductions in waste are goals shared the planet over. Surely motivations that work well in other countries could work here too? 

So I’m interested to hear that San Francisco is to introduce a city-wide ban on the sale of plastic bottles for mineral water. I think the ban is focused on publicly-owned facilities and events in public spaces; nevertheless it’s a radical step to reduce waste. Ok, so it’s not quite what Coca-Cola has in mind with respect to their challenge regarding increasing recycling but it has piqued my interest.

What it has made me ponder is the question around how such waste prevention activities fit with the recycling behaviours and infrastructure which are already well established and successful in much of the world including the San Francisco area. Indeed, I met the man who runs San Francisco’s recycling services a few years ago and he was keen to point out an impressive 88% recycling rate! There are surely business opportunities being realised in this recycling culture – does the aim to reduce the availability of a feedstock pose a threat to them?

I also wonder if this approach to reducing the use of plastic bottles might in some respects be premature. Whilst legislating is one way to influence a change of direction, there are undoubtedly signs that the industry itself is looking for solutions. 

Take Robinsons Squash’d.  This new, super-concentrated squash comes in a bottle so small ‘it'll fit in your pocket or handbag’, and can be squeezed out into a reusable water bottle or glass to make 20 drinks instantly. This coupled with the renaissance of the 70’s Sodastream maker suggests that in the future we could see fewer plastic bottles being bought in store.  The possibilities are endless here. Perhaps driven more by the desire to reduce the impact of water usage through the production system; the shift could have significant impacts on our current recycling infrastructure and ambitions. I can already see kitchens of the future with built-in dispensers for drinks; after all instant boiling water taps and coffee makers are already integrated into kitchen units available today.  Perhaps it won’t be too long until we are mixing our own beer via a ‘magic’ pouch of concentrate barley and hops! With easy-to-return logistics for the small portable pouches - ‘bring back 12 get one free’ - brand loyalty could successfully drive a more circular approach to the packaging, by-passing the more traditional recycling systems. 

But what does this mean for the recycling industries which now depend on the capture and re-supply of plastic bottles back into the supply chain? Just as we have seen the amount of paper in kerbside collections reduce as the digital age squeezes our attraction to the printed media, will we start to see a drop in plastic bottles at kerbside as we get used to ‘making our own’ drinks? It is clear that the makeup of our recycling box is destined to change over time, so keeping our systems and collection models flexible and adaptable is going to be increasingly important. 

The shift to a circular economy is seen by many as an opportunity, but it’s important that we also consider its effect on recycling systems as we know them. Just as the circular economy promotes itself as ‘a new way of doing business’ it also means that recycling won’t be ‘business as usual’.  These glimpses of the future illustrate that there is disruption to come. Recyclers, like the more obvious waste industry, have traditionally solved a problem at the end of the pipe, seeking solutions to re-purpose resources while having little influence on the flow of materials.  Going forward this perhaps leaves them vulnerable to the whims of others who are for a whole variety of reasons planning to change the flow and type of materials. 

The circular economy is as much about redesigning the system as it is about the products.  The resource management industry of today needs to place itself at the heart of the revolution or risk being left behind. Shaping one’s own future must surely be more attractive than having it imposed on you by others. But it also means embracing the new and the innovative and not being precious about what works now as it could become outdated and irrelevant as the circle economy evolves. This to me is the real challenge. Not so much the learning and adoption of something new but having the confidence to remain open to the opportunity to do so.  

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