ATLANTA (March 26, 12:55 p.m. ET) — With seed money from Nestle Waters North America, a former Minnesota legislator and recycling association director has formed a non-profit organization with the mission of advocating extended producer responsibility on the state level.
“We need to begin the discussion because it is a new concept in the United States and represents a cultural change,” said Paul Gardner, executive director of Recycling Reinvented. “I haven't found anyone who doesn't say that we need more stuff. The question is how you do it.”
Extended producer responsibility (EPR) started 20 years ago as a solution to landfill problems in Europe. Today more than 30 European countries have some type of EPR packaging law, and the concept has been gaining momentum in Canada the past six years.
In the United States, EPR has been mostly focused on electronic goods — 25 states now have some type of e-waste take-back program.
In most EPR programs, governments set parameters for waste diversion, recycling, or both. But specifics of how to achieve those objectives are determined by the companies that are part of the supply chain for the product, or packaging that needs to be recovered at the end of its life.
In December, the San Francisco-based non-profit Future 500 started a dialogue on EPR legislation with 30 companies, trade associations and non-governmental organizations. Gardner, in a March 23 phone interview, said an initial draft piece of EPR legislation was recently sent to those participants.
“We are reviewing the comments we received and are now developing a new draft,” said Gardner who said he plans to put that revised EPR draft legislation on the organization's website, www.recycling-reinvented.org, when it is up and running sometime next month.
“Over the next quarter, we want to continue to talk to people from all sectors”—brand owners, packaging manufacturers, processors, material recovery facilities, haulers, labor, and local and state governments, Gardner said. “We want to find out who is really interested in moving this forward. It is a challenge because [it impacts] the core business of selling and moving your product” and incorporates another cost into that structure.
The next EPR dialogue, working again with Future 500, is slated for this June, said 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.
At the Plastics Recycling conference, held March 19-21 in Atlanta, Gardner said his goal is to get buy-in from interested parties and to introduce EPR legislation in four to six non-bottle bill states in 2014.
“We want to move something forward next year,” he said.
Shoreview, Minn.-based Recycling Reinvented, which has Robert F. Kennedy Jr. on its board of directors, was incorporated in January with a mission of advocating EPR as a way to improve recycling rates of packaging and printed material.
To date, there has been mixed reaction to the concept of advancing EPR, Gardner said.
“Some hate it. Others see it as a cost that will be necessary going forward. Still more fear that the government will screw [EPR] up,” Gardner said. “Not everyone within each industry and not everyone within each company are on the same page. Some see it as a great opportunity. Others aren't sure they like it.”
Still, Gardner said that he believes that some companies “will take a leap” of faith and support EPR. And he said that some organizations have said “we'll go with whatever you can pass” because they want more material. “The plastics recycling industry is watching with interest because, for the most part, they want anything that will get them more material.”
Nestle's involvement in Recycling Reinvented reflects the continued commitment of president and CEO Kim Jeffery to advancing recycling.
The Stamford, Conn., company has a stated corporate objective of achieving a 60 percent recycling rate of all PET beverage bottles in the United States by 2018. Nestle has further committed to purchasing 33 percent of the output of the new CarbonLite food-grade PET recycling plant in Riverside, Calif. Jeffery said the company's bottling plant in nearby Cabazon, Calif., will use that recycled food-grade PET to make the bottles for its Arrowhead brand of spring water from 50 percent recycled PET. Previously, those bottles had no recycled content.
In addition, Nestle participates in the nearly two-year away-from-home recycling initiative in the Canadian province of Manitoba that is placing thousands of recycling bins in Winnipeg city parks, arenas, recreation centers, public buildings and other high-traffic areas.
That program is funded by a 2-cent container recycling fee paid by the Canadian Beverage Container Recycling Association. “We like the system that is set up there,” said Jeffery last August. “Industry pays 80 percent of the cost and manages the funds.”
Although Recycling Reinvented will be advocating for EPR, Gardner said that the ultimate goal is to find the best way to recover more materials.
“A lot of people are saying that are other ways to improve the recycling of all materials,” said Gardner. “We are not here to defend EPR. We want to move recovery forward. If there is consensus on another way, that's fine. We want to explore what is uniquely American, what works for the United States, and move recovery forward.”
Still, it is his belief that EPR is the best route for that because it “would ensure that everyone is in” and that some companies don't get a “a free ride” on the work, efforts and costs paid by others.
“Why is it the best option?” Gardner asked. “First, you are more likely to get higher recovery rates because it requires the brand owners to cover or share the cost of the collection and processing of household recyclables.
“Second, it addresses more types of packaging and products” than just containers and bottles “and it allows business to drive the efficiency [of the collection system] through the private sector,” he said.
“Because the brand owners would be paying for it, they will set goals and develop metrics for efficiency” said Gardner, which ultimately means, that “as collection goes up, their costs will go down. So they have an incentive to drive collection.”
He also said EPR results in standards being set which will lead to “the expansion of best practices.
“It also means there will be more harmonization among the material that is collected,” said Gardner, because there will a uniform approach as opposed to different approaches in each community
Achieving EPR in the United States will require buy-in by all parties in the supply chain, and a solution that is simple, particularly because recycling, at least today, is not a high priority among most legislators, Gardner said.
“When it comes down to all the things legislators are interested in, recycling is at the bottom,” Gardner said. “It is even at the bottom of the environmental issues. So you may only get one chance to enact it.”
It will also be necessary to educate people about EPR because “it is misunderstood and misinterpretations abound,” he said. “It does not involve retailers to take-back goods or have in-store take-back, and brand owners are not going to have to set up their own hauling business.”
“The government does not set fees or even handle the money,” said Gardner. “Only an overall framework is established. You need just enough legislative guidance to make sure no one gets a free ride, You can't design EPR to be overly restrictive because you need to keep the system flexible.”
“We want to make it simple,” said Gardner. “EPR gives you a structure from which you can make changes later,” if necessary.
He also emphasized that his non-profit is not out to replace existing bottle bills with EPR laws—which is why it only intends to introduce EPR bills in non-bottle bill states.
“People have asked, ‘Why don't we just advocate for more deposit bills, or include deposits in EPR proposals?'” Gardner said. “But politically, pushing for more bottle bills just makes things more complicated. If you put deposits into EPR, you lose all beverage industry and brand owner support and you would just see people try and unravel it.”