Recycling occurs in a market economy and is thus challenged by the need to create cost effective end markets with associated demand.
Quite often, when any new material is introduced into the marketplace, recycling is often a step behind. The cycle of innovation requires that as needs arise and markets grow, investment into solutions will advance. This dynamic relationship between demand, innovation and economics is what created our existing recycling systems in the first place. Many of the materials accepted by public recycling systems today were established during wartime when demand for resources was high. The government and military contractors relied on the re-use of materials and invested in systems for their sorting and processing. While there is increasing support for innovation in material recovery systems, establishing the economics of end markets, collection and demand still remain beyond the direct control of those seeking solutions. Market economics always has, and will, continue to play a role in driving sustainable recovery systems.
When we examine the history of material recycling, a common pattern emerges, regardless of the material type. A new material is identified and developed for consumer use, collaboration occurs to identify solutions for recycling, investments are made to scale up technological solutions and end markets are identified or created. Once cost effective processing solutions and viable end markets can be established, materials will gain acceptance into public collection systems.
- Identification of technologies and best practices to process materials.
- Identification of cost effective collection systems.
- Regulatory approvals and legislative support granted (as needed).
- End markets develop over time as a result of economics, regulatory and manufacturer support.
- Consumer education and participation in collection to ensure adequate recovery rates tend to occur over a long time period.
- End market development takes time and may be influenced by global economics.
Mapping Challenges for Multi-Material Recycling Across the Recovery System
Initiatives to find effective recycling solutions for multi-material flexible packaging have tackled some, or all, of these challenges. Some projects and pilots have identified solutions to specific challenges, but the key to addressing all aspects of the recovery system is still illusive. Yet, as we know from the history of recovery, solutions are dynamic; innovations and understandings will continue to develop and amend over time.