How China's recycling ban will force fast casuals to reduce waste
By Christy Hurlburt, VP of Marketing, Enevo
A significant amount of money, effort and energy has been invested in recycling in the U.S. For example, Ad Council advertising campaigns or PSAs and initiatives from the EPA tell us how we can personally do our part. And large facilities have been built across the U.S. to process recyclables into neat stacks which are then shipped to China. In 2016, the U.S. alone shipped 16 million tons of recyclable waste to China — and that's only about halfof the recycling waste the U.S. typically exports.
But as of Jan. 1, China banned the import of 24 recyclable materials, shaking up the global waste industry and waste generators alike. Issues stateside like recyclables ending up in landfills due to overflowing recycling centers, negating any effort that was put forth to recycle in the first place, are causing people to panic. But is the situation as bad as we are making it out to be? Have we been relying too heavily on overseas measures instead of cleaning up our own waste?
Since China is no longer taking our recyclables, it is going to force restaurants and consumers worldwide to think differently about systems currently in place and shift our focus on reduction first.
Reduction is key
Recycling as a brand elicits a strong, positive response from consumers. Knowing this, many fast casual restaurants have made recycling part of their core values by setting out separate recycling bins for customers to sort their trash or by using recycled items such as napkins and utensils. When restaurants offer different bins for recycling, customers feel good about taking the time to sort their trash and assume that it ends up in a recycling center. But what happens when consumers find out their recyclables are being placed in landfills anyways due to this ban? Will they direct their passion towards outrage of the system or shift their focus towards making positive change?
Reduction, the first and arguably most important of the "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" mantra, often elicits something akin to a fear response. As consumers, we are afraid that reduction means loss of choice, loss of status or loss of convenience.
In today's society, we as consumers expect convenience — especially from fast casual restaurants — and often feel entitled to consumption, but this mindset is no longer reasonable nor sustainable based on the waste we're generating. This ban could push restaurants to adopt new standards for packaging and suppliers to reduce the materials that end up in their waste and recycling bins — excess wrapping, paper bags, cans and straws — and to adjust guests' behavior to reduce consumption first.
Learning from Europe
Burying waste is cheap and producers often have little accountability for the final destination of their product, which is ultimately the landfill. Packaging on products accounts for 30 percent of trash overall, and to combat this growth, Europe has installed extended producer responsibility regulations to decouple economic growth with growth in waste.
These regulations, which have been in place for nearly 20 years, are proving successful in that region. States like Massachusetts and California have implemented similar policies, such as take-back rebates and the Bottle Bill, to incentivize people to keep recyclables out of landfills, but corporations need to take action to make a major impact.
Internet of things meets waste
Technology use throughout the fast casual restaurant experience is increasing. We're seeing new PoS, inventory and HVAC systems all using technology to gather data, and at the dumpster level, we now have container sensors that also use IoT technology to consistently monitor the volumes of materials coming out of a restaurant. These connected devices allow waste services providers to identify changes in volume and understand what exactly is making up the restaurant's garbage. For example, is it mostly excess food waste from serving too big of portions or spoiled inventory, or do packaging and cardboard boxes from supplier shipments make up a significant percentage of dumpster volume?
Knowing where in the supply chain the materials that end up in recycling bins and dumpsters come from, ultimately helps with the goal of reducing waste. Once we can better monitor and analyze the waste coming out of restaurants, we can form actionable insights and make the necessary changes to reduce waste first.
With a shift, comes opportunity
While China may have disrupted the status quo of the global recycling industry, this ban is now pushing us to rethink and refocus the efforts of restaurants and consumers to reduce waste first. With dumpster IoT technology, visibility into our processes is easier than ever, and we can pinpoint exactly where the majority of our waste is coming from. The responsibility of our recyclables has been placed back in our hands and we can use this ban as an opportunity to implement positive, waste reducing methods.