On Earth Day, a Call for Recycling Innovation

April 22, 2019, 3:26 PM UTC
Ali Tate Cutler x Beyond Yoga Earth Day Plogging Run
BROOKLYN, NEW YORK - APRIL 14: A general view of atmosphere at the Ali Tate Cutler x Beyond Yoga Earth Day Plogging Run on April 14, 2019 in Brooklyn, New York. (Photo by Craig Barritt/Getty Images for Beyond Yoga)
Craig Barritt—Getty Images for Beyond Yoga

This article first appeared in Data Sheet, Fortune’s daily newsletter on the top tech news. To get it delivered daily to your in-box, sign up here.

It’s Earth Day but you may have read recently that there is a recycling crisis.

The problem is that over the past few decades, as cities and towns built up vast programs to collect recyclable materials and get them out of the trash stream, the market for those materials has crashed. Last year, China cracked down on importing used plastics and forced would-be recyclers to find other outlets. None paid what the Chinese used to pay and, unfortunately, that has often meant the end of recycling programs, with waste plastic being sent instead to landfills or incinerators.

Recycling is just the third step in the old environmental adage “reduce, reuse, recycle.” So some local governments have shifted to focus on steps one and two by moving to discourage the use of plastics, as you may have seen in ordinances taxing plastic packaging, banning plastic bags, and even prohibiting plastic straws. Problems with recycling are hardly new–it was more than 20 years when the New York Times Magazine declared: “Recycling Is Garbage.” But the new economic challenges have put more pressure on the effort than all the prior criticism ever did.

It sounds like an opportunity for innovation, though, doesn’t it? Pepsi introduced a new fizzy water dispensing machine on Monday designed to encourage customers to use their own reusable containers. And if you’ve thought up a more environmentally-friendly packaging material, maybe even one that cost more than typical plastics, now is your chance to shine. Perhaps it’s new trash-handling equipment that cleans the used plastics of the contaminants that put China off importing our waste in the first place. Or maybe, as one of my kid’s First Lego League robotics teams researched a few years ago, it’s time to raise millions of plastic-eating worms?

Still, relying on future, as-yet-unproven innovations to solve an environmental crisis while we continue in our profligate ways sounds unwise. So bring your reusable coffee mug to Starbucks today–and definitely don’t use a straw.

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