Think twice before hitting the checkout aisle this holiday season

Columns - Waste Watch

December 4, 2019

‘Tis the season for merrymaking, gift giving and goodwill. Alongside all the celebration that comes this time of year, the economy sees a major boost during the holidays as North America spends more money on consumable products. In the United States alone, seasonal retail sales in 2019 are expected to surpass $1 trillion for the first time. On average, seasonal retail sales represent about 20 percent of total annual retail sales, with some retailers bringing in up to 30 percent of their total annual revenue during the holidays.

All of this activity will ultimately generate a good deal of waste—both in the immediate future from manufacturing and packaging (in particular with the growth of ecommerce sales) and in the longer term after products are worn, used up or become obsolete. Old consumer goods can be especially difficult to divert from the waste stream, as many items are not readily reusable, repairable or recyclable. Whether it’s battery-operated interactive plush toys or new electronic devices that become the season’s must-have gifts, many products either have no secondary market or are technically recyclable, but not without difficulty, as they offer limited opportunity for material recovery.

Producers and manufacturers of these products and their associated supply chains hold a lot of power in the waste and recycling industry. They make decisions about what goods to produce and what materials these will be composed of; where and how the materials will be sourced; how durably these goods will be designed and manufactured; and ultimately, how easy it will be to reuse, repair or recycle these products at the end of their useful lives. In essence, manufacturers have the power to create sustainable change by modifying their supply chains and design processes to connect the two ends of the economic production cycle. With a little foresight, products can become material inputs for new manufacturing processes once they’ve outlived their original function. This approach of considering the full life cycle of goods has positive impacts on the environment, the economy and society. It also can help us close the loop to achieve a circular economy where waste is both a resource and a valuable economic input.

So, while manufacturers have the ability (and responsibility) to supply the market with ecologically conscious purchasing options, let us not forget how much power we have as consumers. As individuals and communities, we have the power to vote with our dollars to help bridge the gap between end-of-life product management and sustainable design and production. This season, consider implementing your own sustainable purchasing strategies. Before you click the “Add to cart” button, ask yourself, “Are the products I’m buying made with recycled content and renewable resources that are sustainably sourced? Are they designed and manufactured to be durable and easily repairable? And are they easily broken down for recycling and material reuse?”

Moreover, we cannot forget our role as waste managers in this circular dynamic. In addition to our collective purchasing power and impact that we have as individual consumers, we also have the power as an industry to help maximize manufacturers’ use of post-consumer recycled materials in the production of new consumer goods by striving to deliver clean recycled commodities to market for remanufacturing. We can do this by reducing contamination in our own county, city or town’s recycling streams, providing access to education for our constituents on proper recycling methods, focusing our efforts to inspire new end markets, considering new (or enforcing current) waste diversion legislation, and actively marketing our incoming recycled commodities.

This season, we can ensure a sustainable future in which today’s wastes are tomorrow’s valued resources. It all comes down to doing our part to stimulate and promote demand for responsible manufacturing.