Waste ain’t what it used to be. Since China largely closed the door to imported garbage last year, recycling costs have increased considerably and programs have disappeared or scaled back in communities across the United States. The shift creates an opportunity for reassessing how we create and dispose of waste.

The issue is urgent. Plastic, a particularly vexing example, is in 94 percent of tap water samples in the U.S. and in nearly every brand of bottled water, according to one study. Plastics, and the chemicals that attach themselves to plastics in the water, can cause cancer, genetic disruptions and other ill effects. Some states are taking action. Bills moving through California’s Legislature would mandate reducing, composting or recycling 75 percent of single-use packaging by 2030, reducing solid waste generation, fostering domestic recycling markets and even eliminating paper receipts.

Craig Criddle, a professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Abhay Jain, an MBA candidate at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, discuss waste challenges and opportunities below. Criddle has evaluated the use of microorganisms to biodegrade plastic materials and to synthesize biodegradable bioplastics – plastics derived from renewable sources – from waste feedstocks. Jain studies waste management and started a recyclable waste collection company in India.

What makes recycling so hard to do profitably?

Criddle: Recycling of conventional plastics typically leads to downcycling and a decline in the value of the recycled plastic compared to virgin plastic. People are often befuddled by recycling bins because the labeling is inconsistent and confusing. As a result, recycle streams become contaminated. Recycled plastics need a price advantage over virgin plastics, but virgin plastics are quite cheap. They are typically produced from low-cost fossil carbon feedstocks, and their manufacturing has been optimized at large scale.

Read more at Stanford University