Extended producer responsibility was the topic of debate during the Sustainable Packaging Forum, held Sept. 11-13 in Pittsburgh.
Michael Washburn, vice president of sustainability at Nestlé Waters North America Inc., made the case for extended producer responsibility, advancing it as a way to solve a whole range of social, environmental and economic challenges.
Stamford, Conn.-based Nestlé is the third-largest beverage company in the U.S., using 20 billion PET bottles a year for its beverages.
“We want those bottles back,” Washburn said in his Sept. 12 presentation, “Recycling Reinvented: A New Approach.”
“Unlike something like carpet, PET [in bottle form] disappears very quickly and that represents a unique challenge. When we say we want them back, that is something we cannot achieve ourselves. That is a systems function,” Washburn said.
“We see it as vital to our future as a company. We think it’s appropriate for us to have that as a goal. We are in our own view a sustainability leader. We have that goal but we can’t get there without a lot of help.”
Reminding the audience that “there still is only one little planet here for us to derive our resources from,” he tossed out the statistic that the U.S. is landfilling $11.4 billion per year of recyclable packaging.
“It is unconscionable in a civilized society that we would waste that much material,” he said. “The politics of this are very complex. Those who don’t find a way to adapt will find their way forward with great difficulty. It’s time that corporate America offered leadership.”
Addressing the argument that EPR is expensive, Washburn said it can be affordable if it is structured in different ways.
“Today when we pay for recycling, the money flows through a government entity, typically,” he said. “What we would propose is that instead of leaving recycling as a politically driven set of choices, that we try to make a shift to make recycling more market-driven.”
Essentially, players like Nestlé would internalize the cost of recycling into the packaging.
“It isn’t taking government out of the picture,” he said. “Government would set the appropriate role. But industry has proven time and again, when the playing field has been leveled, that we can build efficient programs. The idea that this has to be organized zip code by zip code is a false assumption.”
Meghan Stasz, senior sustainability director with the Grocery Manufacturers Association in Washington, was able to use her group’s newly released study on EPR. The conclusions of that report include that a one-size-fits-all approach would not be effective.
Overall, the U.S. does OK on recycling, according to the report.
“We are not Belgium, but we are also not Bulgaria,” she said. “What we do well and where we’re really struggling varies state to state and region to region.”
Landfilling is decreasing. The U.S. is recycling packaging at increasing rates.
“It’s not total doom and gloom,” she said. “We’re on the uptick; we’re doing pretty well.”
Solid waste represents a challenge to municipalities, which are dealing with 165 million tons of trash every year. Another of the report’s conclusions is that EPR does not decrease system costs. It increases government and administrative costs.
“Just having the EPR system does not make your overall recycling system more efficient,” said Stasz.
Ultimately, there needs to be a holistic approach to managing all waste, not just packaging. There are a number of policies other than EPR that drive recycling and recovery rates, she said.
The industry has to continue sustainability leadership with a broad, holistic approach. And the industry has to coordinate efforts.
“What is the problem we’re trying to solve? Is a trash tax the most efficient way to address these challenges? Are there other solutions that are less costly?” Stasz asked.
For Jim Downham, president and CEO of The Packaging Association based in Toronto, the issue is the lack of harmonization.
In Canada, one federal government provides strategic direction; 13 provinces and territories created their own laws and programs; 1,000 municipalities implemented their own rules; and three provinces implemented EPR.
“This is a complex issue, way beyond what I’d ever imagined,” he said during his presentation.
“The end game is pretty simple — to mitigate costs and maximize recovery.”
The purpose behind the association’s Pac Next initiative is to help create a world without packaging waste. Its process is based on several principles, which include best practices that support harmonization.
“You’ve got to get harmonized with your policy,” Downham said.
There also has to be consumer engagement so that other interests understand what motivates the consumer to pick up a given package. Pac Next also is developing a sustainable packaging design guide.
In essence, the “industry needs to lead this, folks,” Downham said. “Don’t let government lead this.
“Act now; don’t get legislated.”