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Recycling alone isn’t enough to solve the plastic crisis, CEO explains

·Assistant Editor
·4 min read

Plastic is found almost everywhere you look — including cars, clothing, and food packaging. 

And as of 2015, only about 9% of plastic waste that was put into recycling bins in the U.S. was actually recycled. The rest accumulates in landfills or in the natural environment.

“We are unable to recycle our way out of [the plastic crisis],” Grove Collaborative Co-Founder and CEO Stu Landesberg told Yahoo Finance (video above), adding that less than 10% of what is placed in recycling bins is actually recycled. "That's because of the infrastructure limitations, number one. But number two, ... plastic is not a material that is infinitely recyclable."

A woman wearing a face mask and a plastic bag pulls a cart loaded with bags of recyclables through the streets of Lower Manhattan during the outbreak of the novel coronavirus (which causes COVID-19) on April 16, 2020 in New York City. (Photo by Johannes EISELE / AFP) (Photo by JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images)
A woman wearing a face mask and a plastic bag pulls a cart loaded with bags of recyclables through the streets of Lower Manhattan on April 16, 2020 in NYC. (Photo by Johannes EISELE/AFP)

According to Landesberg, there are nearly $1 trillion worth of home and personal care products wrapped in single-use plastic every year. Grove Collaborative, which sells these types of products, has committed to becoming 100% plastic-free by 2025.

“Materials like aluminum, paper can be infinitely recycled with high energy savings," he said. "Plastic can only be recycled two or three times. And it always ends up being downcycled, so you have to throw it away at the end." (Downcycling refers to the process of recycling items into lower-quality materials or products.)

To achieve its plastic-free goal, Grove Collaborative is focused on the "reduce" end of the recycling triangle, starting with product and packaging design.

“What we can do is we can look for products and innovations in companies that are investing in form factors that are entirely plastic-free or that rely exclusively on technology that shrinks the size of the product to shrink the overall footprint, and hopefully mitigates the need for packaging overall,” Landesberg said.

Ultimately, he said, the goal is "to reach a solution to what is a growing environmental crisis and proliferation of plastic waste all around us."

The total number of tons of plastics that are recycled, composted, incinerated, and landfilled.
The total number of tons of plastics that are recycled, composted, incinerated, and landfilled.

The true cost of plastic

The consumer packaged goods (CPG) industry generates a massive amount of single-use plastic waste, as 40% of all plastic is produced for single-use packaging.

“Our industry, the CPG industry, as one of the leading producers of plastic waste, has an incredible opportunity and obligation to solve this problem,” Landesberg said. "It's not just going to be Grove that solves the problem but that we can partner with like-minded companies in the industry to make more progress."

Because it is often cheaper to produce new plastic than it is to recycle it, he noted that the true cost of plastic must be taken into account, including external costs such as the detrimental impact discarded plastic has on ocean ecosystems as well as the tourism and fishing industries.

A worker shows shredded bottle caps that will be transformed into raw material to make different plastic articles at the Colorplastic company in Bogota, Colombia, Friday, April 9, 2021. Sajú is a company that makes sunglasses from old plastic lids, like those on soda bottles. The company buys bottle tops that have been turned into small pellets by a recycling plant, melts down the material and injects it into molds to produce colorful frames. Dark lenses are then mounted on the frames, to make shades that are sold at Sajú's stores for about $40 each. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)
A worker shows shredded bottle caps that will be transformed into raw material to make different plastic articles at the Colorplastic company in Bogota, Colombia, Friday, April 9, 2021. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)

“While plastic may be cheaper to produce, the cost to society of all of the plastic waste that's in our oceans, in our landfills, gets incinerated, ends up in our water is material,” Landesberg said. “And so the true cost of using plastic is extraordinarily high. But the burden of that cost is placed on society as a whole, not just on those companies.”

Landesberg also believes that eliminating plastic waste can be a differentiator for the companies that do make the transition away from single-use plastics.

“We think one of our core advantages is our ability to bring innovation to market that not just has extraordinary efficacy, not just natural ingredients, but also zero plastic, zero waste, extremely strong sustainability technology, and to do so at prices that are no higher than what you're used to,” he said. “And so over time, zero plastic pricing will certainly come down, but where we are today is a starting point that's in line with the industry overall.”

Grace is an assistant editor for Yahoo Finance.

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