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How Your Business Can Unpack and Prioritize Sustainability Through Recycling Here's why leaders must take recycling efforts to the next level through circularity.

By Rob Huffman Edited by Sean Strain

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

PonyWang | Getty Images

Consumers in 2022 are well aware of the importance of recycling. After all, they have been bombarded with "recyclable" messaging on their products since the 1970s. But even the most optimistic are frustrated with the lack of progress and accessible recycling processes. As climate change increasingly impacts our daily routines, the urgency of these efforts is increasing.

Without swift action, the estimated 11 million metric tons of plastic currently entering the ocean annually will triple in the next 20 years. The time is now — and businesses must take immediate steps to understand the realities of recycling, the opportunity to contribute to a circular economy and the necessity to educate consumers.

Related: How Entrepreneurs Can Turn Trash Into Profit (Literally)

Recycling needs a reboot

The data clearly shows just how confused consumers are about recyclability. There is an alarming gap between recycling perception and reality.

One new report found that out of the 40 million tons of plastic waste generated in the United States last year, only 5% to 6% was recycled. In fact, glass, plastic and liquid cartons all have a much lower rate of recycling than perceived by the consumer.

The reality is, most of the materials labeled "recyclable" are not recycled, or are recycled only one or two times before they hit the landfill. So while labeling these materials might seem like an easy way to promote recycling, it's doing little to protect our planet.

The good news is that consumers still want to be a part of the long-term solution. More than half of consumers are "less likely" to buy products in harmful packaging, and 44% said they "won't buy" products in packaging that is harmful to the environment, according to Trivium Packaging's 2022 Global Buying Green Report.

But just because consumers like to buy sustainable packaging doesn't mean they are taking the necessary steps to recycle it. This is why brands must do their part to encourage more recycling, including educating consumers on the large gap between perception and reality. Every business must have a hand in changing consumer behavior by creating recycling content across brand channels, communicating messaging about sustainable materials and finding ways to encourage and incentivize the recycling of their products and packaging.

Related: What Is Sustainable Entrepreneurship, and Why Does it Matter?

The switch to circularity

It's time for leaders to dig deeper and look at materials that recycle forever without degrading in quality and that have high recycling rates. These materials, like metal and glass, stay in the circular loop forever, achieving much higher levels of circularity.

For example, 84% of steel packaging in Europe is recycled. Once it's sourced, metal packaging is infinitely refillable and versatile, ultimately making it much more economical and environmental because of its durability.

Reducing waste and moving away from the culture of disposability is one of the most significant shifts in modern-day consumerism. Brands must get on board. By moving away from materials that have a limit to the number of times they can be recycled and towards materials that can be recycled forever, companies large and small can not only move the needle in their own sustainability goals but contribute to a circular economy and help save our planet.

Related: Being Eco-Friendly Is Hard. Here, 6 Business Leaders Explain Their Most Effective Strategies.

Investing in the infrastructure: Public and private responsibility in the circular life cycle

If businesses believe government policies are supportive of improving their environmental footprint, they'll be more confident in transforming their manufacturing process to support infinitely recyclable materials. Conversely, there's much that every brand can do to support a stronger recycling infrastructure.

In recent years, large consumer brands have banded together for major recycling infrastructure investments. Companies have also worked directly with processing centers to invest in enhanced recycling machinery or partnered with recycling centers to promote new technologies that more accurately and efficiently sort recycled materials.

No matter what size company, there are ways to participate. There are many examples around the world of businesses, government entities and communities collaborating to keep trash out of landfills. Many offer collection programs, even for hard-to-recycle waste streams, and work with businesses to enhance their circular supply chain, ultimately keeping materials in circularity.

Related: Why You Need to Build Sustainability Into Your Business Strategy

Implementation and education

In a recent study, 88% of consumers said they wanted brands to help them be more sustainable and ethical in their day-to-day lives. And there's no better platform to communicate important messages to your consumers than the packaging itself.

Featuring language on packaging such as "metal recycles forever" and "100% Recyclable, Forever" across packaging or point-of-sale materials on digital platforms and social channels will help to both promote eco-friendly credentials and communicate the call to action to the end user.

Recycling is far from the simple panacea that the advertising spots from the past 30 years wanted us to believe. It's complex and it takes work. It's time to take on that complexity and take recycling to the next level — which is circularity. That requires a check of existing sustainability goals. Small businesses that understand how to take advantage of this new circular infrastructure will win — and help save the planet in the process.

Rob Huffman

Chief Growth Officer of Trivium Packaging

Rob Huffman is chief growth officer of Trivium Packaging, a leading producer of sustainable metal packaging.

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