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Recycling Alone is Not Working, Biotech to the Rescue

Cornelia Poku
Cornelia Poku
March 10, 2020

Don Norman makes an excellent point about waste. And the biotech industry realizes that.

In a two-part series for Fast Company, the professor and director of UC San Diego’s design lab argues that recycling can’t be the only solution for our massive waste problem. 

He points out that recycling places a huge burden on consumers and beyond that, it’s inefficient. “Recycling is broken,” he wrote. “There’s little clarity about what can and can’t be recycled, and the rules change from one city to the next, and sometimes even within the same city.” To his point, in a tristate metropolitan area, like the Washington Beltway, which is only 1500 square miles, recycling is not consistent from one side of the street to another.

But that’s not to say that recycling is a complete failure. Mayonnaise giant Hellman’s has committed to 100 percent recycled packaging. The new containers also include the How2Recycle label developed by the Sustainable Packaging Coalition that provides consumer recycling instructions.

However, “Recycling is the symptom. The underlying problem is the design and manufacturing of so much stuff that has to be discarded…We need to rethink the wide variety of materials used for our products,” Norman writes, calling for “human-centered design” that takes into consideration people’s actual habits, solves the problems that exist within the system, and is committed to testing new ideas.

Norman is correct on that front and biotech companies are on it. If we are going to remove responsibility from the consumer, that starts with the materials that enter the economy; materials intended to have a long lifespan, and those that are biodegradable and don’t cause harm even if they don’t make it into a receptacle.

The fact is that even with our best efforts, plastic gets discarded. It’s not necessarily fair to ask a mother of three to track down her county’s recycling rules. Biotech companies like Anellotech, Renmatix, and Virent, Inc, use a variety of biobased ingredients so that even when consumers trash products, the materials can be returned to the earth. Now that is human-centered design.

Developing anything at all creates waste, that’s how biology and economy works. In addition to trying to limit waste, as Norman says, biotech companies are addressing the problems that exist in the system. Virent in particular is creating solutions to repurpose refuse. They are taking existing greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere as well as otherwise discarded food waste to develop plastic.

And there are scores of start-ups seizing the opportunity to address the problem of plastics with biobased alternatives that are biodegradable, compostable and more planet friendly. 

Biotrem is making tableware (disposable plates and utensils) from wheat bran; Spoontainable is tackling plastic waste with the launch of its edible ice-cream spoons–Spoonies; and Pela’s cellphone and tech accessory cases have a cult following because they’re made of a new material called Flaxstic®-- a plant-based blend of bioplastic elastomer and flax straw materials that's 100 percent compostable and plastic-free.

Of course, the three technologies mentioned are not nearly the only ones. The biotech industry is committed to—and grounded in—trial and error. Companies like Lego have spent the last few years trying to find substantive biobased replacements for their products and have been open about that process.

“We can’t say we inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow if we’re ruining the planet,” Lego’s head of environmental responsibility, Tim Brooks, said to the Wall Street Journal. Lego failed to develop blocks with corn and wheat although they launched a small, successful Lego line made of sugar cane, but are struggling to scale up.

Even with unforeseen difficulties, it seems Brooks is inspired by the success of other products we never thought possible. “Could you imagine that you could make a vegetarian burger that tasted or looked like meat five or ten years ago?” he said alluding to brands like Beyond Meats.

That is the beauty of biotech, it makes the seemingly impossible possible and accessible.

So yes, Don Norman makes some great points about the problems with recycling, but with biotechnology moving at the pace that it is, recycling will soon be one option among many viable, human-centered solutions to our environmental crisis.