In fourth grade, I had no idea what the word sustainability meant. However, I know now that's when my sustainability journey began, and I can pinpoint the day.
It was the fall of 1986 and I was excited that Mr. Gilzow, newly assigned special programs instructor and my hands-down favorite teacher at the time, was scheduled to talk to our home room class. I didn't know what "special programs" meant and frankly, I didn't care. I just knew it was Mr. Gilzow – and that was enough to make it epic.
I hung on every word as he began talking about garbage, how our landfills were quickly reaching capacity and that recycling was the solution. In our small town of Milan, Michigan, we didn't have curbside recycling, but Mr. Gilzow said we did have a newspaper recycling dumpster behind the town's grocery store, and he encouraged us all to use it.
I thought deeply on the 11-mile bus ride home that day. It made sense to me that there is a limit to how much garbage our earth can hold. This seemed like a real problem.
I couldn't wait to tell my dad about Mr. Gilzow and garbage and landfills and that we could do our part by hauling our newspapers into town to be recycled. Dad didn't quite share in my unbridled enthusiasm – refusing to drive 11 miles just to recycle our newspapers. However, we did make that drive every Sunday for church and he told me if I saved the newspapers, we could swing by the recycling dumpster afterward.
The newspaper drop off was right next to the dumpster for regular garbage and making the trek there each week taught me two things:
A New Solution for a Broken System
My passion never subsided. When AmSty gave me the opportunity to work on sustainability efforts two years ago, I jumped at the chance to work on the problem Mr. Gilzow had taught me about many years prior. As director of sustainability and innovation at AmSty, I'm helping change the way the world recycles plastic.
The recycling system as it stands now isn't working. Some would argue that for plastics – the recycling system was never even built.
In the U.S. only about 10 percent of all plastics are recycled, and globally only about 5 percent. It may be more accurate to say," sold into the scrap commodity market" rather than "recycled," because today there is almost no domestic in-kind (a cup becomes a cup again) recycling.
Instead, plastic recycling in the U.S. typically means finding a market that will accept lower quality (off-color, contamination, etc.) in exchange for a lower price. This often means "down cycling" (a cup becomes a black ruler) or exporting. There is a place for both downcycling and exporting in recycling, however they will never result in the circular economy that will get us to a sustainable future.
A circle, by definition, must end where it began. We must move to recycling technologies that restore the quality to enable in-kind domestic recycling, so the circle ends where it began.
At AmSty, we're already using a circular recycling solution for polystyrene – we call it PolyUsable, because "poly" means many.
Instead of downcycling (or landfilling) a polystyrene coffee cup, the PolyUsable process restores the quality of the original material so it can be made into a cup again…and again….and again. The circular recycling process is similar to melting an ice cube back to its original state of water and freezing it again into a cube (and melting and freezing and melting and freezing – an infinite cycle with no degradation).
It doesn't get much more sustainable than that.
Small Steps – Big Progress
Our long-term vision at AmSty is that no polystyrene should ever need to be landfilled – and someday, no plastics at all.
Regenyx, a joint venture of AmSty and Agilyx, uses circular recycling to process up to 10 tons of polystyrene waste per day – 10 tons that's not going to landfill. To accelerate this transformation, we have announced additional investment in the Regenyx facility and plans to build a new facility using the same technology, co-located with an already existing AmSty site.
I'm not going to sugar coat it. This will be a heavy lift – working with cities and states to create infrastructure that makes it easy for polystyrene waste to be collected, sorted and recycled, building additional facilities and creating public awareness. But we're all in.
It's a long-term goal where each small step – like tossing newspapers in a bin behind a grocery store – will pay off.
Mr. Gilzow has no idea the impact he had on me that day in fourth grade. But I hope he accepts my invitation to the ribbon cutting when the new facility is complete so we can both celebrate a new milestone in a truly sustainable recycling solution and the exciting potential that's ahead.
Creating truly circular in-kind recycling systems for plastics won't be easy…. but I am all in.