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What Recycling Will Look Like in 10 Years

As businesses rush to become greener, this is what recycling may look like a decade from now.

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Recycle Green Environment Conservation Eco

Recycling is rapidly changing around the globe

As concerns about the environment ratchet up, some people are pressuring corporations to reduce, reuse, and recycle—and they’re becoming more savvy, too, realizing that there’s a reason “recycling” is the last of the three Rs. These photos of what the world’s most polluted beaches used to look like are a strong reminder about the importance of taking care of our planet.

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closeup escalator with a pile of plastic bottles at the factory for processing and recycling. PET recycling plantAlba_alioth/Shutterstock

Countries will have to step up their own recycling initiatives

As of January 2018, China banned the import of many types of foreign plastic waste leaving the recycling industry in the United States and across the globe struggling to find a new solution. “Over the past 25 years, China processed over half of the world’s exports of recyclable materials,” shares Erin Simon, director of sustainability at World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Germany, South Korea, and Wales each recycle over 52 percent of waste as a result of policy objectives from local governments, funding for recycling programs, and financial incentives for consumers and businesses. Find out how these 13 countries are replacing plastics.

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Trash for recycle and reduce ecology

More goods will be made of existing materials

The increase in the reuse of existing materials, including recycled plastics, glass, paper, and more will reduce the demand for raw materials. You’ll find more clothing, toys, park benches, etc. made of recycled water bottles along with buildings and furniture made of reclaimed wood and steel, for example. “Waste is finally being treated as a resource,” says Adrian Davies, director at Hubba, a waste management solutions company. “This creates a circular economy where there’s no concept of ‘waste,’ and all resources will be kept in recirculation with no endpoint.” These are the 9 most recyclable materials on the planet.

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Starter Kit for lunch eating in Cotton bag on wooden table. top view. Zero waste plastic free conceptSakoodter Stocker/Shutterstock

Reusable products will become more popular

It’s not just companies that will be held responsible for reducing waste, individuals will need to commit to using more reusable products. Take single-use straws, for example. They’ve been banned everywhere from Buckingham Palace to Miami Beach, because they are so bad for the environment and wildlife. Straws are just the tip of the iceberg—beginning in 2021 the European Union will ban single-use plastics and Canada has pledged to do the same. “We cannot rely on recycling alone; we need to change consumer’s habits by disrupting the way they think about single-use plastics,” says Michael Martin, CEO, and founder of r.Cup, a company that produces reusable cups that can replace single-use plastics at events.

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Shoppers return their bottles and cans of reusable packagings in a reverse vending machine.aleks333/Shutterstock

Bottle deposit laws will become the norm

Ten states already have some form of container deposit laws on the books (in New York, for example, shoppers pay a 5¢ deposit on plastic soda bottles; they can redeem the money when they bring the bottle back to the store or other drop-off facility). “If a National Container Deposit law is passed, the United States may improve its recycling rates,” says Jan Dell, a chemical engineer and founder of The Last Beach Cleanup.

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Recycle sign Symbol on Eco Shopping bag Environmental friendlyVTT Studio/Shutterstock

Consumers will become smarter

Shoppers are tuned into companies that “pink-wash” (where each October, companies put out pink products that allegedly support breast cancer charities), and now awareness of “green-washing” is on the rise, particularly when it comes to recycling. “Recycling has been a crutch for plastic producers for years,” says Perry Wheeler, a Greenpeace spokesperson. For example, Philip Morris, Pepsi Co, McDonald’s and other corporations support the Keep America Beautiful campaign, which Wheeler says “puts the onus on individuals to clean up their plastic mess.” Fortunately, these 22 other companies getting rid of plastic for good.

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pillbottlesDavid Smart/Shutterstock

Less plastic packaging

Anyone who has struggled to open a bottle of painkillers, shampoo, or a new toy will be happy to hear this one: In the next ten years, we can expect to see more brands using recycled materials and less materials overall for packaging, though it will likely take longer for all plastic to be phased out. Part of the problem? New plastic is cheaper than recycled plastic. That’s why Dell advocates for making use of recycled materials in new packaging mandatory. “Plastic recycling in the United States will only improve if companies are legally required to use recycled content in their products,” Dell says.

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Waste-to-energy or energy-from-waste is the process of generating energy in the form of electricity or heat from the primary treatment of waste. Cubes of pressed metal beer and soda cans.Belish/Shutterstock

Chemical recycling may become more prominent

Though the field is still in its early stages, the process of chemical recycling, an umbrella term for technologies that “return post-use plastics to their basic chemical building blocks for creating a versatile mix of new plastics, chemicals, fuels, and other products,” per the American Chemistry Council, may see an uptick in the coming years. Chemical recycling has the potential to be a gamechanger; a press release from the New Hope Energy on its Tyler, Texas facility states that when fully operational in 2020, the plant will be able to process 960 tons of plastic a day. However, chemical recycling is not without its critics. “This is all just a huge, incredibly expensive distraction,” Denise Patel, U.S. program director at the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives told The Intercept. She touts reducing the overall use of plastic as a better solution.

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Plastic Bags full of groceries in the trunkBelen Strehl/Shutterstock

You’ll be able to recycle thin plastics more readily

More companies will collect thin plastics, usually labeled as #4 or LDPR and including things like Ziplocs and dry cleaning bags, grocery bags, and bubble wrap, for recycling. Currently, this plastic isn’t often recycled curbside (depending on the municipality where you live) as it’s so lightweight, it can jam recycling machinery; but throwing it out isn’t ideal either as it takes an estimated 450 years to decompose. Your current options are to return it to a store that collects them, find a local drop-off facility, or use a service like Ridwell, a start-up company based in Seattle, that picks up hard-to-recycle items from your home for a fee. Like plastic bags, these everyday items also take forever to decompose.

Lola Méndez
Lola Méndez is an Uruguayan-American freelance journalist and writes regularly for Reader’s Digest Culture and Travel sections. Her work has also been published in CNN, Architectural Digest, SELF, ELLE, InStyle, Cosmopolitan, O, The Oprah Magazine, and Parade Magazine, among other publications and her responsible travel blog, She earned a BA in Marketing from LIM College and is a 200-hour trained yoga teacher. Méndez has appeared on NBC and spoke at the Georgetown Women in Leadership summit. You can follow her on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and LinkedIn