Nestlé short-sighted about bottle deposits

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Michael Washburn, sustainability director for Nestlé Waters North America wrote a Perspective (“Jobs report lacks big thinking,” PN, Jan. 2/9, Page 6) on the recently released “Returning to Work: Understanding the Domestic Jobs Impacts from Different Methods of Recycling Beverage Containers.” The study authors, Clarissa Morawski of CM Consulting Inc. and Dr. Jeff Morris of Sound Resource Management Group Inc., in collaboration with the Container Recycling Institute, would like to share a few comments on Mr. Washburn’s letter.

Washburn comments that the study is “narrow” in focus — presumably because it focuses specifically on beverage containers (aluminum, PET and glass), rather than all recyclables. Indeed, there are many excellent studies that quantify jobs through recycling in general, and we include links to both the CRI study and other recycling jobs studies on CRI’s website:

“Returning to Work” reaches several important conclusions. One is that increasing collection, processing and secondary processing of recyclable commodities within the U.S. supports jobs across the board and also supports domestic manufacturers. Another is that material quality, which is directly affected by the method of collection, is also an employment driver. The cleaner the material, the fewer the losses and the greater chance for the material to remain in the U.S. One would think Nestlé would be grateful for, or at least keenly interested in, a study that drills down into potential jobs impacts of its particular packaging product.

This is especially true because Nestlé has a corporate goal to “increase U.S. recycling rates to 60 percent for PET beverage bottles by 2018.” That’s an ambitious goal, to nearly triple the existing PET bottle recycling rate from the current 21 percent (per the Environmental Protection Agency).

Washburn’s other critique related to jobs is that “the main increase in jobs from bottle bills compared to curbside recycling is in collection. … However, we believe that what are essentially low-wage jobs are coming at the expense of better-paying jobs in manufacturing, retail and distribution.”

Our study found quite the contrary — that clean material from container deposits support many more jobs in U.S. manufacturing, while dirtier curbside PET is disproportionately exported to overseas markets for manufacturing.

The remainder of Washburn’s critique was not directed at CRI’s study, but rather was a restatement of an old litany of complaints about container deposits that appear to be ill-informed.

To Washburn’s claim that container deposit refunds “do not come cheap, and often at the expense of other materials,” we respond that in Ontario’s curbside program, PET has a net collection cost of nearly $1,000 a ton (50 cents per pound), or about 3.4 cents per container, and recycles about 44 percent of PET in the province. Contrast that with “best practice” container deposit programs in California, Hawaii and Oregon that operate at dramatically lower net cost — just one-fifth of a cent for all containers in California (a 68 percent PET recycling rate), and about a penny per container in Hawaii and Oregon (about $290 a ton, or 15 cents per pound for PET, net). As to other materials, funds from California’s deposit system also deliver over $100 million a year in payments to community curbside programs.

To the claim that “aluminum cans and PET bottles are the greatest revenue generators” for curbside, we say longtime recyclers know that it’s net cost that matters, not scrap price. Aluminum is a net positive in any collection program, but PET costs more to collect curbside, transport and sort than the revenue it brings in. All of the multimaterial-packaging extended producer responsibility programs in Europe and North America set fees for producers to pay for PET collection, because it has a net cost, not net revenue.

If deposits were the dinosaur of municipal recycling that opponents insist, we should expect the landscape to be littered with dead and dying carcasses. Yet the reality is that while only one state deposit program death has been recorded in the last decade, those 10 years have seen 16 new or expanded programs, not only in North America (e.g., Oregon, New York, Alberta, Hawaii, Prince Edward Island, Ontario, Connecticut) but in such far-flung places as Germany, Guam, Fiji, Australia’s Northern Territory, Estonia, Croatia, even little Turks and Caicos. Plastics News editor Don Loepp recently wrote in the paper’s editorial agenda that: “The industry should support state and national bottle bills, since bottle-deposit programs have proved effective in collecting a clean, valuable recycling stream.”

CRI shares Nestlé’s goals of maximizing packaging recycling and minimizing waste. Indeed, CRI’s mission is to, “make North America a global model for the collection and quality recycling of packaging materials.” CRI has a rich, 20-year history of advocating for packaging EPR programs. We delight in working with brand owners that share our vision. We advocate for programs that achieve stellar recycling rates for beverage containers at almost no cost, delivering pristine materials that can be used cradle-to-cradle, while creating jobs, and that’s a solution that we should all be able to embrace with enthusiasm.

At the end of the day, whether we look narrowly at a particular material or broadly at the whole spectrum of manufactured and organic recyclables, surely we all agree that a system currently trashing 76 percent of its beverage containers — and 79 percent of its PET bottles — needs everyone involved to “think bigger.”

Clarissa Morawski

Jeff Morris

(On behalf of) The Container Recycling Institute

Culver City, Calif.