Features Chronicle Opinion
The world’s struggle with waste

Print can play a lead role in recycling prosperity

July 29, 2019
By Nick Howard


Standing outside my local coffee shop, I’m staring at a row of trash bins, each emblazoned with signs. One reads garbage, another, recycle, while a third says paper. Just as millions of people, I struggle to figure out which bin or bins my lunch packaging should go into. Even more annoying, some of my trash is made up of a combination of materials.

I feel like a picker at Amazon, ripping apart various bits of my packaging and tossing it into various orifices. This is just stupid.

Recycling is in the cross hairs today and, over the last 12 months, has been heating up to a point where climate change shares top billing with our growing trash problem. Mountains of articles with a governmental focus are picking up steam, looking for a solution. The answer seems rather obvious from where I stand. Yes, the use of single-use plastics is a concern but banning straws is only a small part of a larger problem.

Paper, as all printers know, has an easy way to be reused. Mixed (coated or other processes such as glue) are sorted and separated from uncoated, and the filled bins can be routinely hauled away by paper recyclers. Because these are already pre-separated, the process is easy. Glass and metals have the same easy process of being returning to recyclers who have a simple task of crushing the glass or filtering the various metals. Nothing can be as simple as isolating steel cans from aluminum — besides there is a ready buyer for these materials. The common sense approach to plastic should be made the same. The problem is, a good many packaging products are made up of a combination of paper, plastic and metals. This can be fixed by encouraging the printing industry to develop new cellulose materials that can make packaging homogeneous.

Since plastics were invented back in 1862, we sought a way to produce a product that could outlast everything else found in nature. There remains good reasons for this. If you live near bodies of water or in a four-seasons climate, having window frames that don’t rot or rust makes a good deal of sense. Plastic piping, such as ABS, is lighter and is  used for everything from high voltage wires to drain and water pipes — none of these do you want to habitually replace. But currently there is no incentive for plastics to be recycled the same way as paper, metal and glass.

Billions, if not trillions, of tax dollars are spent trying to get a grip on the ever-expanding piles of single-use plastic. Canada recently followed the EU in banning various one-time-use plastics by 2021. Does that solve our problems? I don’t think so. There are much easier and less bureaucratic ways of reducing waste and giving it another life. Current recycling programs are simply wasteful as loads of quasi-sorted materials end up at monstrous locations where someone gets the crappy job of rifling through conveyors of household waste looking for the good bits. No wonder it’s a rotten job. But not everything is as simple as a paper cup and a paper lid. Finding a way to manufacture a box of plastic wrap without a metal serration strip is just one obstacle of many that will have to find a solution.

Years ago we were in Germany and walking through a quiet neighbourhood one evening. We came across a very large dumpster-like container with two small round holes at shoulder height. One sign read glassklar (clear glass), the other read glasfarben (coloured glass). What a common sense, easy way to return single-use glassware to be used again. But here in Canada we don’t do that. Yes, we can return wine and spirits bottles to the store or we can throw them, along with other so-called recyclable products, in a blue bin for someone else to sort them out. There is no reason why the public can’t do the sorting themselves and deposit base recyclables into large containers that a recycler can then pick up and not have to re-sort.

Too many trash cans are part of the problem
Try and find a trash can in Japan. I once grew annoyed when I simply could not find a container on a busy street in Tokyo to toss a coffee cup. That is, until I realized the less trash cans there are, the more effort we put into finding a proper place to dispose of refuse. This is unlike Canada where some communities go out of their way to spread millions of containers all over our cities and towns — and to great taxpayer expense. These containers are jammed full of everything from waste paper to dog feces, and someone has to sort it. Tax dollars spent picking up all over the place and sorting materials is a waste of our hard-earned money. Countries such as Japan are excellent examples of intelligent management.

There is money in trash, and not just picking up and filling our landfills or reaping subsidies to sort through the stuff. Look at metals, cars and smaller items, such as batteries. All have value with simple routes back to the industry. Not so with plastic. Canadian firm EPI has developed an OXO-Biodegradable compound called TDPA™ (Totally Degradable Plastic Additive). This compound is now being used in shopping bags and based on a modified formula called Polyactide Aliphatic Copolymer. The bag is designed to biodegrade in weeks. Soon, materials of this type will be used in other products. Another product is CPLA, which features a sugar such as corn- or beet-based renewable bio-waste polylactic acid, that is now being used to manufacture lids and cups. These are good things no doubt, and there is the additional benefit to homogeneous packaging that can also be printed. Biodegradable anything is part of the recycling solution too.

Our industry has a golden opportunity to encourage the use of paper. Although there are new sources of natural, fast-growing trees, printers have already had to struggle and adjust to shorter fibre-recycled papers. We can ensure the packaging we make is made only with single-stream materials and discourage the use of compounded products, such as a cardboard box with a plastic lid. Perhaps our associations will take a leadership position to encourage the adoption of simplified recycling programs, such as the German glass bottle bins. If we can do this, then more of the materials will be reused again and again, and we can diminish the huge cost of sorting or ambivalence by the public that it is someone else’s problem. Had the EU not banned straws, there would be no push to make them any differently. If every straw went to the right place, there wouldn’t be a “straw” problem or a need for paper straws either. Just because we don’t have an answer to aluminum serration strips in the same material as the cardboard box, doesn’t mean we won’t find one.

Some suggestions
• Mandate single-use packaging to be made with singular ingredients. This includes metallized foil and plastic labels.
• Develop a simple recycling program for plastics and encourage polymer industries to develop ways of reusing all forms of plastic.
• Standardize large community recycle containers for base materials: Paper, plastic, metal, glass and corrugated packaging.
• Centralize recycle deposit containers by working with independent recyclers and make them easy to access, and large enough to reduce pick-ups.
• Reduce the quantities of generic trash cans and raise fines for littering, thereby encouraging the public to return packaging to a source that will reuse it. Change is always the most difficult, but the sense is that most of us want to play a bigger role as long as it doesn’t cost us more money.
• Eliminate the home recycling container. Too many recyclables end up in these and must be sorted again at a depot. Eliminate the need for the public and industry to do the same job twice.
• Continue using environmentally friendly inks and coatings to encourage manufacturers that printers can provide a stunning package even with a single component. As long as we do this, no one needs to cut corners on creativity or the amount of packaging used.

The missing link in recycling is plastic. Photos that show oceans and rivers full of plastic bottles and non-biodegradable trash scream now is the time to make it easy to return plastic to be recycled, ground up and used again. If we do that and not use our tax dollars to pay a subsidized sorter, not only can the world eradicate plastic waste, we can also reduce our dependence on plastic’s main ingredient — oil. The print industry has been handed a golden opportunity to showcase how the use of 100-percent paper-based packaging makes good sense for the planet.

I don’t want to stand there stripping bits of my trash to be placed in a jumble of bins. A coffee cup and lid should match! The landfill only gets biodegradable organic waste. As kids, we would rummage through ditches and parks looking for glass soda bottles because they had a cash return credit. With metals – especially aluminum cans – inner-city poor still collect and return these to a metal recycler for cash. That’s because metal has value. Now it is plastic’s turn to be easily recycled. Meanwhile packaging designers should see a problem for which they can devise a solution.

Nick Howard, a partner in Howard Graphic Equipment and Howard Iron Works, is a printing historian, consultant and Certified Appraiser of capital equipment.

This column was originally published in the July/August 2019 issue of PrintAction, now available online.