Monday, January 25, 2021


Online shopping creates millions of tons of packaging waste each year. During the two-day Amazon Prime event that took place in October, America ordered an estimated 260 million items. The shipping giant delivered 415 million packages in July alone.

With all that waste, a simple recycling system should be a top priority. But the reality is the U.S. recycling system is overly complicated. Simplifying the process is an easy step toward protecting the environment.

Americans tend to do well with recycling cardboard. Recycled boxes are ground to a pulp and turned into new paper, cardboard, tissue, and other items. Plastic is the real issue. Plastic recycling rates lag behind other materials. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finds that when all plastics are averaged, just 8 percent are recycled. But (and it’s a big “but”) unlike cardboard, not all plastics are the same. Some are far easier to recycle than others.

Plastics are made from different resins. They aren’t all accepted by curbside recycling programs. And most consumers don’t know the difference. Plastics are identified by numbers within the triangular recycling logo of chasing arrows. For example, PET resin goods—think water or soda bottles—are easily transformed into new resin-based products and labeled with a number “one.” Polystyrene and Styrofoam on the other hand are rarely accepted by recycling programs and are identified by a number “six.”

Simple enough, but a new poll from the Campaign for Recycling Awareness revealed that 78 percent of consumers are unsure what the numbers on recycling logos indicate or believe it means something that it doesn’t. And most manufacturers seem to intentionally make that logo hard to find or decipher without a magnifying glass. Imagine what our highways would look like if most drivers couldn’t see or understand STOP or YIELD signs.

Rather than a numerical system, a color-coded classification — like a traffic light — would be easier to understand. Easily recycled plastics labeled “one,” “two,” and “five” would have a green symbol on their packages. Items that are only recyclable in some locations should don a yellow label. Products that can only be recycled in specialized facilities like juice and water boxes (a mixture of paper, plastic, and aluminum glued together) should have a red logo indicating not to place those containers in a recycling bin.

In addition to the confusion, the polling reveals a plurality of respondents, 43 percent, say a lack of access to recycling is a top reason they don’t recycle. According to Greenpeace, 87 percent of Americans live in municipalities with curbside recycling. But that doesn’t mean every apartment complex offers access. Half of respondents indicated an increase in the number of recycling bins would boost their recycling.

Online commerce works because it’s an efficient and effective way to shop without leaving home. Establishing a new recycling color-coded system while expanding access to the programs will make proper disposal equally popular.

• Richard Berman is president of Berman and Co. in Washington, D.C.

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