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Jobs report lacks big thinking

By: Michael Washburn

January 6, 2012

The Container Recycling Institute recently published “Returning to Work: Understanding the Domestic Jobs Impacts from Different Methods of Recycling Beverage Containers.” At Nestlé Waters North America, we share CRI’s desire to capture more beverage containers, and to use recycling as a means of job creation. Where we respectfully part ways, however, is on the narrow focus of this report. Let’s think bigger.

There’s no question that recycling creates and maintains more jobs than throwing our waste in landfills. The objective now should be figuring out how to maximize recycling at the lowest cost for society. At NWNA, we believe the best way to do this is through extended producer responsibility (EPR) for packaging and printed paper.

While we know that container deposit refunds (CDRs) collect a lot of beverage containers, a more comprehensive study would have shown that CDRs do not come cheap, and often at the expense of other materials. EPR for packaging and printed paper would result in higher overall recycling rates at a lower cost per unit, and would require all brand owners to participate, rather than just beverage companies.

Under EPR, a state would set recycling goals but would let the private sector figure out how to meet those goals. NWNA and our other corporate colleagues can find infrastructure efficiencies and achieve goals at the lowest cost. After all, that is what we do every day in bringing our product to market.

The CRI study seems designed to reach one conclusion — bottle bills create more jobs than curbside collection. However, a closer look at the numbers shows that the main increase in jobs from bottle bills compared to curbside recycling is in collection. This is logical since there is a lot of handling at redemption centers and retailers. However, we believe that what are essentially low-wage jobs are coming at the expense of better-paying jobs in manufacturing, retail and distribution.

Here’s why: Aluminum cans and PET bottles are the greatest revenue generators for most curbside recycling systems. By removing or sharply reducing these commodities in the curbside mix, it reduces the total revenue available to recyclers to invest in recycling for paper and other non-CDR containers. Paper grades make up the largest volume of recyclables by far. If a community only collects beverage containers and nothing else, that program is not maximizing the opportunity for landfill diversion or manufacturing jobs gained from higher net recycling rates.

As a beverage company, we’ve seen how fees and surcharges on our products end up being used by government for purposes other than recycling improvement. An EPR system would let brand owners figure out how to manage dollars for recycling most efficiently without political interference. And if we’re wrong, an EPR system allows for changes in fees and packaging types more easily than deposit systems, in which prices and products are set in statute and rarely change.

Only one state has passed a new deposit law in the last quarter century. We don’t seek to repeal existing deposit laws, but clearly a newer, more comprehensive approach is necessary in the 40 non-deposit states. At NWNA, we are working with retailers, consumer packaging companies, and others to develop state-level plans for EPR. We hope you will join us.

Michael Washburn is director of sustainability for Nestlé Waters North America of Stamford, Conn.