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How plastic “waste” is getting a greener second life

New innovations are creating a more sustainable future for single-use plastics.

An illustration of people walking with single-use plastic water bottles to throw in a blue recycling bin, and one person carrying a reusable water bottle in their purse.
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Sustainability: it’s at the forefront of a lot of people’s minds today. But what does it really mean?

Environmental activists, skin care brands, online retailers — entire billion-dollar industries, even — are chasing down ways to help support this ecological balance. And with reports showing that we’ve only recycled about 9 percent of all the plastic ever made, it’s clear such efforts are needed.

Although there are lots of newcomers on the sustainability scene, and more and more voices telling us the “right” way to reduce our environmental impact, some brands have been helping us do that for decades. Nalgene Outdoor, the creator of the original reusable bottle, has been at the forefront of these efforts since the 1970s. Now, we’ve partnered with them to take a deeper dive into how recycling is finally delivering on old, eco-friendly promises. Translation: with the introduction of innovative new recycling methods, discarded single-use plastic can have longterm use (and re-use) in the circular economy.

The Nalgene Sustain bottle, made from 50 percent recycled content, delivers on two fronts. It not only keeps future single-use plastic out of landfills, but also diverts old waste. Let’s take a look at how Nalgene Outdoor is closing the loop on plastic waste to help us achieve a more sustainable lifestyle.

A recycling system on overload

To put it simply, it would be impossible right now to recycle all the single-use plastic that exists (which is partly why 79 percent of all plastic hasn’t been recycled). According to Nina Belluci Butler, CEO of More Recycling, this is because the recycling system, as it’s currently designed, is in overload.

“Even if you’re wildly, totally successful and everyone is putting the right thing in the bin, we don’t have the capacity to absorb it,” she says. “And meanwhile, they’re still making even more, so we’re never catching up. It’s a trickle of recycling compared to a tsunami of plastic production.”

Butler regularly works with policymakers and has come before the US Senate to advocate for a circular economy — one where manufacturers design plastic products and materials to stay in use longer to extend how long they’re in rotation. The transition from our current more “linear” system — in which raw materials are turned into plastic items and then disposed of — toward a “circular” model is what Butler calls the “North Star” of policy change.

New technology finally delivers on an environmental promise: circular recycling

Today, US companies aren’t required to find alternatives to single-use plastic. And because it’s currently cheaper to use new plastic for products than it is to use recycled materials, many opt for new materials.

Some brands, though, are willing to invest and push the needle on innovative ways to incorporate recycled materials. Nalgene Outdoor, which has been leading the way with its reusable bottles for 70-plus years, is one of them.

A blue Nalgene Sustain bottle with a background of text that reads: 50% of each Sustain bottle is made from recycled content. That’s equivalent to 8 plastic bottles that would have gone to a landfill.

Chemical (or molecular) recycling safely breaks down single-use plastic into its original building blocks, allowing old plastic waste to be reused in new products without compromising on strength, durability, or design. To create its Sustain water bottles, Nalgene Outdoor is using this revolutionary technology, diverting single-use plastics from landfills to create something more sustainable.

Nalgene Sustain bottles are made with 50-percent recycled content: the equivalent of eight single-use water bottles. Plus, they’re made entirely on US soil, so they have a smaller carbon footprint than competitive products made overseas and then shipped here. The brand sources its recycled raw material in Tennessee and manufactures in Upstate New York, so the bottles are homegrown from the recycling plant to the factory floor.

Also, unlike some other eco-friendly substitutes, Nalgene Sustain bottles don’t compromise on quality or performance. The bottles come in a wide array of great colors (hello, Clementine orange) and are durable, leakproof, and dishwasher safe, so you’re not sacrificing style or functionality for sustainability. Being kinder to the planet is always a good look.

Know what to look for: small changes can make a big impact

Sustainability has gone from a buzzy topic to a lifestyle that many people strive to adopt in their daily lives. While policymakers are working on getting corporations to make changes within their industries, there are things we can do now on an individual level to try to help.

Even if they seem minor now, making more conscious everyday choices can be the catalyst for widespread change. Bonnie Monteleone, ​executive director​ and director of science at Plastic Ocean Project, says small things can shape what comes later. “That’s the future,” she says. “It’s this beautiful circular economy that’s happening…our job is to get people convinced that this is the future and so they start looking for it.”

An advocate for conscious consumption, Monteleone stresses incorporating “the three Rs” by making better choices, like bringing a reusable straw or keeping a reusable water bottle in your bag. Although this has long been a rallying cry for environmentalists, consumers today can go further by paying attention to what goes into the items they use.

By using one durable, BPA/BPS- and phthalate-free Nalgene Sustain bottle, you can reduce your reliance on single-use plastics and repurpose someone else’s discarded plastics, too. It’s a win-win, and it’s also impressive when you remember the bottles are made up of half of what would’ve been just “waste.”