What if I wrote something ridiculous like there was no such thing as a green product?

You might think I was crazy or in total denial about the environment. It turns out, though, that many of the things we hold as truths about recycling may not be exactly what we thought after all.

The Biggest Misconceptions About Recycling and “The Circular Economy”

Many of you know about the circular economy – which is really just a cool buzzword to describe use and re-use of materials. Recycling is probably the most well-known part of that circular economy. And it, along with waste management, have become big business industries.

But if you ask people like myself who are not in the waste management field why we recycle, most of us provide vague ideas. That’s what Dr. Trevor Zink showed me in his research. Dr. Zink is a sustainability expert who does this sustainability thing for a living. He is a professor at Loyola Marymount University’s nationally ranked College of Business Administration as well as an advisor for its Institute for Business Ethics and Sustainability.

What he told me when we sat down to talk was revealing and important.

As he describes it, the problem is that even though most of us assume that it is environmental to recycle, when you subject it to rigorous analysis and data – like Dr. Zink and a few other progressive researchers have done in the waste management field – that story of environmental benefit starts to fall apart.

At its most basic level, recycling ultimately simply prolongs landfill since the materials eventually end up either in the air or a landfill somewhere even after several rotations through the circular economy. And if we think there is cost savings associated with recycling versus landfills, it turns out that putting materials in modern landfills is essentially costless.

Beyond that, the concept of recycling is that we collect, sort, and clean already in use materials such that it creates fewer emissions when made as a “secondary good” than producing a product from raw materials (a primary good). This then ultimately displaces the raw material good production because the secondary products are cheaper to make (and, of course, cleaner).

The problem is that new research shows that it doesn’t actually always work out that way. That research has shown that due to principles of supply and demand, primary goods are unlikely to be completely displaced by recycled goods.

What that means is that recycling cannot be as good as we think because we can’t displace the primary good in every case. Some even argue that because we can’t do that, we are actually adding materials to the environment with recycling and therefor increasing impact.

This may all seem pretty controversial and paint a bleak picture of something we thought was doing real good. But like many things, maybe there is a silver lining here.

Should We Do The Unthinkable And Stop Recycling?

This might seem like the logical question, But when you speak with Dr. Zink, he says that there is a much more important question we should really be asking ourselves, and that question is:

“What should we be doing instead?”

The answer is all about consumption. As Dr. Zink puts it, recycling can never make up for consumption. The real environmental value can be achieved through simply reducing our consumption.

This all makes a lot of sense environmentally, but you could make the argument that it flies in the face of every principle of business. Most businesses – mine included – are based on a foundational principle of increasing consumption of a product or service. More units is better.

So how then do you as a business make money selling less stuff?

Real Small Business Opportunities Here

That was the exact question I asked Dr. Zink during our conversation. It all comes down to “servicizing products”, which actually represents big opportunities for businesses.

Here are just a few examples of viable business concepts out there now that fit this model:

Ride sharing and car sharing tours:

This is about turning traveling into a service. Uber and Lyft are the best known names out there, but they may represent the tip of the iceberg in terms of opportunities. This could extend well into even how the tourism industry works.

Clothing rentals:

On a personal level, at this point in my life the only clothes I’ve every rented were a few tuxedos for a few formal weddings, not even including my own where I wore a suite and blue running shoes. My lack of fashion sense aside, the concept of clothes rentals is already out there and growing. It again represents a business model that makes money but doesn’t have to make and sell more product.

IT services:

Instead of putting more laptops out there, its about providing computer services to customers. As IT becomes more and more sophisticated, these options could become very real. Netflix is a great example of this, essentially replacing brick-and-mortar Blockbuster with streaming data.

So there just might be a lot of business opportunities that help the environment through reducing consumption while still being quite profitable. Here is a link to more research sustainability research that might get you thinking differently. It did for me.

This post was originally published on Inc.com.

  • Bette Papa

    I have been thinking about the recycling and trash issues for some time. Your article points out additional problems for me to consider. As one person, I can do only a minimal amount to reduce the amount of trash and recycling that is produced. I have reusable shopping bags. I add as much as possible to curbside recycling. I reuse containers, bags, boxes, as much as possible. Will this make an impact? Does recycling as we currently do it as a society make a positive impact? Should we stop recycling? Asking the important question, “what should we do instead,” seems to be the better approach.
    My most recent research on the topic brought me to your article and blog as well as several others who are questioning the benefits of recycling. Not only are most people unaware of what can and cannot be recycled, they are not aware of the costs involved, or the consequences of not following the guidelines put forth by their specific facility. Most also do not know facts such as one dirty pizza box in the paper bin contaminates everything, causing all of it to end up in landfill anyway. Or that throwing any plastic in the bin, recyclable or not, will require someone to sort through and take out the objects that cannot be recycled by a specific facility, adding to the cost.
    Your article prompted me to think again of an issue that seems to raise little concern – Manufacturing and businesses use of packaging. We could reduce consumption as you suggest, potentially to the detriment of the some companies. We can reuse, recycle, share rides, rent clothes, etc. But my question is what are companies doing to reduce the amount of packaging on their products? For example, the cereal in a bag in a box, or the heavy plastic sealed package on products like batteries. What are they doing about reducing the packaging used to ship their products to consumers? I recently received a box the size of a shoebox that contained 2 small items that could be held in one hand, wrapped in feet of bubble wrap. Seemed excessive but we see this all the time. Also, what are manufacturers doing to explore other materials to use instead of plastic for product packaging?
    I do not know enough about manufacturing to know the answers but would like to know if these issues are at the forefront of any discussion about recycling effectiveness, landfill overload, and the costs of both. I want to know what I can do as one person using cloth shopping bags and purchasing products with the least amount of packaging possible. Any suggestions?

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