Growing number of organizations focus on reducing packaging waste

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AUSTIN, TEXAS (Sept. 6, 3 p.m. ET) — Make no mistake about it. Reducing packaging waste and incorporating product stewardship into business strategy has become a mainstream focus of packaging companies.

That shift, which began two years ago and is now picking up speed, has spawned a growing group of organizations with similar missions — but different approaches — to increasing the recycling of materials.

“We want to increase recycling rates, recycle materials on a larger scale, and do it at a lower-cost per household,” says Paul Gardner, executive director of Recycling Reinvented, a 6-month-old non-profit group funded mostly by Nestle Waters North America Inc., which advocates for extended producer responsibility (EPR) legislation at the state level.

Likewise, the American Institute for Packaging and the Environment is out to drive up recovery rates of packaging in the United States — but through voluntary product stewardship efforts and through partnerships and collaborations with others, said Ameripen Executive Director Joan Pierce, who also is director of packaging sustainability at Colgate-Palmolive Co.

“It is critical that we partner with you,” Pierce said at the recent Resource Recycling conference in Austin. “If we’re not well-connected and collaborating with you, we won’t succeed.”

“We want to provide data and science-based information — not personal opinions — to help companies and organizations take action,” said Pierce who heads the 18-month-old organization formed by large consumer goods brand owner companies, packaging converters and raw material companies 18 months ago. “We are committed to working from facts and data.”

The first step in that process for Ameripen: a web-enabled searchable and interactive Product Recovery Knowledge Map on its website that allows its 30 members to develop recycling plans based on data.

“It lists and has a profile for all materials across all phases of the recovery system,” she said. “That helps us and our members determine what is the best thing to do to increase the recycling of each specific packaging material.”

.The map was developed by environmental consulting firm Resource Recycling Systems, based in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Resource Recycling also is working to develop data for the Foodservice Packaging Institute which earlier this year formed a Plastics Recovery Group to encourage recovery of used plastic foodservice packaging in North America. FPI also has a Paper Recovery Alliance.

“There has been a shift in thinking,” said Lynn Dyer, president of FPI which represents companies that convert paper, plastics, aluminum and bio-plastics into single-use foodservice packaging. “We have gone from viewing trash as waste to viewing it as a valuable resource,” she said. “There also has been a shift in market supply and in demand, as we are starting to see more post-consumer recycled content in food-service packaging.”

The problem remains, she said, that single-use foodservice packaging is “typically not being recovered after use because of limited infrastructure and end markets. In addition, no single company has enough influence to affect broad change alone.”

Dyer said industry needs to work collaboratively on a number of solutions to those challenges.

“We think there will be a number of solutions, not one,” she said.

Alcoa Inc. also is working with coalitions to move recycling rates higher.

“We want to get beyond discussion and get to action,” said Elizabeth Schmitt, Alcoa’s director of recycling. in explaining why the aluminum producer pulled together 90 people from more than 70 organizations for the Action to Accelerate Recycling summit in Dallas in February.

“We want to get people to voluntarily work together to drive rapid step-change in U.S. recycling rates for packaging and printed materials,” she said. “Our goal is to drive recycling rates higher and provide incentives for consumers to recycle.

With the exception of Recycling Reinvented, most of the organizations prefer voluntary industry-driven solutions as opposed to an EPR system where the government is involved, usually in setting goals and performing the role of oversight.

Despite that difference of opinion on EPR, many recycling-oriented groups have a number of things in common. Among them: a focus on making the recovery of packaging and products efficient and a focus on identifying areas where improvements can be made.

“We have to determine the economic viability of current and new initiatives and develop a toolbox to provide information” to develop programs that are efficient, Dyer said. “We want to identify market-driven recovery options” that make sense.

Pierce agreed.

“We want to make sure that as we drive improvements in the recovery of packaging, that it’s efficient,” she said. “Cost is the big issue because the whole process of driving improvements is very expensive.

“We have to drive efficiencies to where they need to be because there is a limited number of resources,” which makes assessing the financing for any initiative a priority, Pierce said.

To that end, Ameripen formed a Resource Development committee in late July, whose mission will be to secure the financial resources needed to support the work of Ameripen project teams.

“We plan to develop a strategic document that lays out all the different approaches to funding the re-engineering of the infrastructure for municipal collection” for the short-term, the mid-term and the long-term, Pierce said. “We have to figure out the financial gap that exists to get the things done that we want to achieve.”

“We have to learn how to optimize the process, drive efficiencies and then strategically think through the scale-up process” whether it is for collection, processing, recovery or local and state partnership initiatives, Pierce said.

Similarly, AAR has identified six areas where opportunities exist to expand recycling: the use of reverse vending machines, shifting consumer mindsets, the development of data standards, curbside collection, on-site collection at premises and workplace recovery.

“We hope to have a pilot kicked off sometime in 2013 for scaling up curbside recycling — to make it larger and to do it right,” Schmitt said. “We are looking to work together in collaboration with Ameripen” on that, and also involve upstream material manufacturers “who want to capture that material.”

She also said AAR plans to develop “five or so best practices that can be scaled up and deployed across the board” to increase recycling onsite or at premises.” That effort, she said, will be led by the glass industry and companies that sell major brands of beer and be done in conjunction with the National Restaurant Association.

AAR also wants to build upon the existing Keep America Beautiful/Ad Council campaign to “inspire” individuals and groups to “take accountability” for recycling packaging and printed materials, Schmitt said.

“Education and awareness is critical to driving recycling to make it a consumer norm,” said Schmitt. “Brands need to be involved, but it is in the consumers’ hands to make a difference.”

At the corporate level, she noted that Alcoa bought out its recycling partner, Novelis, and took 100 percent ownership, at the end of August, of Evermore Recycling LLC, the world’s largest purchaser of used aluminum cans. And earlier this year, Alcoa invested $10 million for a 10 percent equity stake in Electronic Recyclers International, a large U.S. collector of e-waste.

Some of the groups are also keeping an eye on the legislative front, particularly in light of an increased level of activity, surrounding EPR.

For example, at its annual meeting in late July, Ameripen organized a government affairs committee to lobby and influence legislation in favor of environmentally responsible policies.

“We feel that we need to provide information to respond effectively” to EPR initiatives, said Pierce.

“I do not feel legislation is necessary to resolve this issue. We certainly do have a problem, but if you have every stakeholder sitting at a table with an open mind, you will get a solution, she said. “We have the technology, the desire and we will achieve the results. We don’t need a legislator to tell us what to do.”

However, Gardner — who was executive director of the Recycling Association of Minnesota from 1997 to 2006, and then served two terms in the Minnesota House of Representatives— believes EPR programs are the “best opportunity to increase recycling on a large scale.”

He said that EPR — a mandatory form of product stewardship in which brand owners assume the cost of recycling collection and allocate the costs among themselves — can drive lower costs, more efficiency and result in higher quality materials for domestic manufacturers to use.

“That’s the focus,” Gardner said. “You don’t want to maximize recycling and just get a lot of junk and low-quality materials. EPR can provide more raw materials for domestic manufacturers and make it easier for brands to use post-consumer material.”

“You can harmonize materials collection. You can scale up best practices. You can take away the patchwork system we have now and do things on a regional or state level,” said Gardner, “You can standardize measurement each ton properly.”

Besides, he said, companies need to be involved in EPR efforts because if “legislators are left to their own devices, companies can get saddled with something worse and also get a lack of uniformity. It is better to go to the gatekeepers of supply and start there” to design the system for collection of materials.

“We are still planning on targeting several non-bottle bill states for legislation in 2013,” said Gardner. “We have several states we are looking at simultaneously.”

The groups agree that there are challenges ahead and that while improvements can be made in the short-term, creating the right solution for the future remains a long-term effort.

“It will be until the end of the decade for something like this [EPR] to mature,” said Gardner.

“The three biggest obstacles are infrastructure, developing or using the right incentives to get consumers to recycle and do the right thing, and education, and they all pretty much go together,” said Schmitt.

“We need public-private partnerships to educate people about what’s not being recycled and why it should be, and that incentive piece is an important driver of that whether it is Pay As You Throw” or something else, she said.

“People have to understand the value of packaging and the importance of recycling,” said Schmitt. In addition, the “fear of change” at the municipal level must also be overcome.

“I’m optimistic,” she said. “Capital funding is tight. But I believe the economics of recycling are becoming better understood, and that the partnerships and dialogues from the AAR summit will equal dividends in the future.”

Packaging veteran Pierce has no doubt that companies will develop a solution.

“It’s a challenge, but there aren’t any barriers,” she said. “If you get the right people in a room and that group decides on a destination, you will get there and it will get done because the right people are leading those discussions and because we now share the destination.”

“The only barrier is time,” said Pierce. “This is a 12-15 year effort. It is not going to be solved in the short-term. We need to drive short-term projects to drive efficiencies and then add long-term projects.”

While some organizations have set goals for increasing recovery rates, she said that Ameripen isn’t taking that approach at this point.

“We have not set goals for recycling rates,” she said. “We strongly believe in continuous improvement and in driving results. If you sets goals [for rate improvements], you might do something stupid just to reach the goal. And then that goal will cost you more than what you gain.”

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