Recycling and reuse have been around forever, in one form or another. Whether it was "rag picking" in the early 20th Century, or plastic soda bottles today; recycling is nothing new. But the future holds a lot of promise for us cutting our waste long-term, and there are some exciting and creative business models being developed that might help take us to the next level of sustainability.

Innovations in waste reduction and recycling are everywhere, but two of the most commonly recycled materials are plastic and cardboard.

So which material is the winner when it comes to environmental friendliness? There is no "one-size-fits-all" answer to that. It depends on the product, its application and the overall cost, both financial and environmental. For example: many retail distribution companies, including Nordstrom and Safeway, are replacing disposable cardboard shipping containers and wooden pallets with reusable plastic transport packaging.

According to Justin Lehrer of Alameda County's StopWaste.org, "Reusable totes, pallets, bins and tarps are durable, long-lasting alternatives to corrugated cardboard boxes, disposable pallets and stretch-wrap for shipping merchandise."


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Those same types of collapsible plastic containers are becoming popular with household moving companies too. In fact, some new companies' business models are based solely on using reusable containers -- Repax, ZippGo and Rent-a-Green-Box are examples of what companies' thinking outside the "cardboard box" can lead to.

Their customers order the plastic crates they need online and get them delivered to their homes. The containers are packed, stacked, and put on the moving truck. When they arrive at their destination and are unpacked, the empty crates are then picked up by the same company.

The upside for the consumer? No hassles with finding or purchasing cardboard boxes, and when the move is done, there are no piles of boxes to recycle. An added bonus is that reusable moving crates are easier on the environment.

With some new products though, the plastic-vs.-cardboard debate is flipped. According to research, more than 15 million plastic and wire hangers go into landfills every day, mostly from retailers. Who knew?

Now there are compressed cardboard clothing hangers being used by popular retailers like the Gap and Adidas. These new hangers, manufactured by Ditto, are made from 100 percent recycled cardboard and are 100 percent recyclable or compostable. Highly durable and thin; they are also lightweight, meaning cardboard hangers may be preferable to their old-school plastic and metal counterparts. The Ditto Hanger was so creative, in fact, that it won the prestigious Acterra 2013 Business Environmental Award for Innovation.

It's great to know that every day there are plenty of creative people that are designing new products that are inspiring many of us to think and act in more sustainable ways. All we have to do is keep an open mind to what is possible.

For a list of resources used in this article, please email Lois Courchaine at lois@wastediversion.org