With seed money from Nestlé 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 U.S., 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, a 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 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,” including brand owners, packaging manufacturers, processors, materials-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 affects] 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 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.”
But he believes some companies “will take a leap” of faith and support EPR. And he said some organizations have said they'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.”
Nestlé's involvement in Recycling Reinvented reflects the continued commitment of President and CEO Kim Jeffery to advancing recycling.
The Stamford, Conn., firm has an objective of achieving a 60 percent recycling rate of all PET beverage bottles in the U.S. by 2018. Nestlé has further committed to buying 33 percent of the output of the new CarbonLite food-grade PET recycling plant in Riverside, Calif. Jeffery said the firm'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.
Nestlé also 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.
Although Recycling Reinvented is advocating EPR, Gardner said the ultimate goal is to find the best way to recover more materials.
“A lot of people are saying there 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, he believes EPR is the best route for that because it “would ensure that everyone is in” and that some companies don't get 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 ... and it allows business to drive the efficiency [of the collection system] through the private sector,” he said.
Because brand owners would be paying for it, they would “set goals and develop metrics for efficiency” he said. That means their costs go down as collection increases, he added. “So they have an incentive to drive collection.”
EPR also will drive standards that expand best practices.
“There will be more harmonization among the material that is collected,” he said, because there will be a uniform approach vs. different approaches in each community.
EPR in the U.S. will require buy-in by all parties in the supply chain, and a solution that's simple, especially because recycling, at least today, is not a high priority among legislators, he 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. “It is misunderstood, and misinterpretations abound,” he said. Retailers won't be required to have in-store take-back programs, and brand owners won't 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.”
Gardner 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. “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.”