More than 30 years after the federal government started tracking the amount of waste in the U.S., the resounding majority of plastic does not get recycled. Some of Connecticut’s largest consumer-goods firms say they want to help change the trend. Companies such as Stamford-based Henkel and Nestle Waters North America are focusing on making their businesses more environmentally sustainable. They face increasingly pervasive pollution from consumer products— a predicament that they are trying to tackle through improved consumer education and more ecological offerings.
“There is no silver bullet that will solve everything with one particular activity or initiative,” said David Tulauskas, the new chief sustainability officer of Nestle Waters N.A., whose brands include Poland Spring water. “But our vision of a ‘circular economy’ really needs to engage consumers and inspire them to view plastic not as waste, but as a precious resource that can be used over and over again.”
Until 1990, recycling, including composting, did not surpass 15 percent of “municipal solid waste” generated in the U.S., according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency. It became much more prevalent during the next 15 years, but its growth then slowed. The national recycling rate reached nearly 35 percent in 2015, according to the most recent EPA data. “I think there was a lot of effort with recycling back a few years ago, and then we hit a plateau,” said Bill Lucey, Long Island Soundkeeper for the nonprofit Connecticut Fund for the Environment/Save the Sound. “We’re at a point where we need to re-adjust our strategies and hit it harder.”
In Connecticut, about 35 percent of waste was recycled or composted in 2015, a rate that has remained “relatively flat” during the past decade, according to the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. The state discards 2.4 million tons of trash annually, an estimated 1,370 pounds of refuse for each person in Connecticut.
“One of the many factors that has negatively impacted Connecticut’s low recycling rates is that many types of materials are not covered by the recycling system,” said Louis Burch, Connecticut program director for the nonprofit Citizens Campaign for the Environment. “Plastic bottle caps, lids, straws, certain food cartons and expanded polystyrene foam containers are all extremely costly to process, and most are simply not covered by local recycling authorities.”
Keeping plastics from ending up in landfills — or worse, waterways and open land — has proved challenging. Only 9 percent of the substance was recycled nationwide in 2015, a gain of only 7 percentage points from 1990. In comparison, national recycling of paper and cardboard jumped from 28 percent in 1990 to 67 percent in 2015.
Of the 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic made since large-scale production started in the 1950s, 6.3 billion tons have become waste, according to researchers from the University of Georgia, the University of California-Santa Barbara and the Sea Education Association. The plastic blight devastates ecosystems, estimated to contribute to the deaths of millions of marine animals every year. To help reduce the toll, CFE/Save the Sound leads annual beach cleanups in Connecticut that have cumulatively removed more than 100,000 pounds of trash.