Unintended Consequences

Bernie Thomas, principal consultant at Resource Futures, says “solutions aren’t perfect” when it comes to packaging recycling. He says in a knee-jerk quest to solve one problem, we risk developing practices which themselves have unintended consequences…


There is no shortage of willpower to see an end to the scourge of plastic waste littering our countryside and entering our seas. According to the World Bank, 84% of people in the UK are concerned with our use of non-recyclables / disposables, a figure of concern that is replicated across the globe.

Source: World Bank 2018 / Ipsos 2018 – click to expand

It’s a concern that is fuelling a multitude of initiatives; from government-led measures such as product bans, deposit return schemes and plastic taxes, to community activist feats (for example the Walkers crisp packet protest causing mayhem at post office sorting offices[1]).

Then there are the more entrepreneurial initiatives. Enter ‘Loop’ the latest concept from recycling business, Terracycle. ‘Loop’ specifically describes itself as a ground-breaking e-commerce platform that offers zero-waste packaging options for popular fast-moving consumer goods, eg, cleaning products, cosmetics, ice cream etc.

In Loop, products are supplied exclusively through an on-line shopping site in durable, reusable containers that a user returns when finished for cleaning and refilling. The largest brands such as Proctor and Gamble and Unilever are currently trialling a range of their products, in a move that promotes new reuse and recycling behaviours.

We care deeply about the global impacts of waste on the environment and our analysis is carefully conducted to ensure we provide qualified and independent findings.

At Resource Futures, our vision is ‘a world where everyone uses resources sustainably’. As you might imagine therefore, our work sits at the heart of this vision. We care deeply about the global impacts of waste on the environment and our analysis is carefully conducted to ensure we provide qualified and independent findings.

I’d like to be entirely positive about the concept of Loop but here is the killer blow: for Loop, all of these every day essentials can be ‘simply dropped back into the Loop Bag and a free pick-up scheduled from your home’. If every Loop customer ‘simply’ schedules a free pick-up every time they run out of ice cream… This may be a plastic free solution, but it most certainly isn’t a carbon free solution.

‘Loop’ follows Terracycle’s original mission to recycle ‘the impossible to recycle’ – from cat food sachets to toothpaste tubes – a laudable vision. Under its various recycling programmes customers can either purchase collection boxes for hard-to-recycle products from their own premises (eg, for mixed food and cosmetic containers, baby gear, Lego etc etc), or they can post items such as crisp packets, contact lenses, disposable gloves, paper clips back to Terracycle.

For many of Terracycle’s recycling programmes, relatively small quantities of items are collected at multiple drop off points by different vehicles, or are posted, where they are then sorted and recycled into numerous markets.

“Solutions Aren’t Perfect”

The analyst in me is thinking ‘are these long-term financially and environmentally sustainable solutions?’ How do these systems work? How are refillables sorted and washed, how many times will they be reused before they are discarded? Are they as effective as disposable packaging?

What traffic and infrastructure are required to achieve this? Just how much energy does it take to post a crisp packet? How do such services and programmes fit in with or complement regular kerbside recycling boxes provided to us by local authorities?

Is it truly feasible to recycle all packaging products? What proportion of items collected are actually suitable for recycling and reuse? What are they recycled into? (original product or downgraded to low value material?).

Therein lies the challenge. Solutions aren’t perfect. In a knee-jerk quest to solve one problem, and create new forms of business, we risk developing practices which themselves have unintended consequences and add to climate change or treat the symptom rather than provide a cure.

We must acknowledge that the required solutions are bold, ambitious, non-linear and demand vision and courage. That is something that companies like Terracycle and its supporters have in spades.

Without detailed consideration of the system impacts, we risk ‘designing in’ a next generation of packaging and recycling systems which are overly complex. With added complexity comes the risk that less people are engaged overall and a potential outcome that is more costly, less effective and unsustainable in the long run.

The challenges are immense, and we must continue to work hard to ensure ideas are investigated thoroughly to arrive at solutions the maximum numbers of people will use; solutions, which minimise environmental impact, or at least anticipate, the broad consequences of proposed interventions and new businesses. Trials, accompanied by Life Cycle Assessment and Cost Benefit Analysis, for example, enable us to better understand the viability and true sustainability of new solutions.

But we must also not be guilty of paralysis caused by over analysis. We must acknowledge that the required solutions are bold, ambitious, non-linear and demand vision and courage. That is something that companies like Terracycle and its supporters have in spades.

And for those solutions which work and result in the engagement of more people in sustainable behaviours, we are one step closer to a more circular economy – the vision where resources are used sustainably and responsibly for our benefit and the environment, for future generations to come.


[1]https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/sep/26/dont-post-crisp-packets-royal-mail-begs-packaging-protesters

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  1. couldn’t agree more, the business plans/ideas need further analysis otherwise we could be left with unintended consequences.

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