With demand for recycled resins continuing to outstrip supply, the voices are getting louder — and more organized — for creating some sort of extended producer responsibility program to increase the recycling of packaging materials, plastics and otherwise.
In the past two months, an alliance of more than 30 public interest groups and other supporting organizations formed the Cradle² coalition to push for public policy changes that would make manufacturers responsible for collecting and recycling the products and packaging they make.
“The broad implementation of EPR is still a long way off,” said Scott Mouw, recycling director for the state of North Carolina. “But these new advocacy groups for EPR are all reacting to the same thing. … There is dissatisfaction with how the current recycling situation works.”
Fundamental changes are needed, he said: “We can't get to the top of the mountain staying on the road we're on now.”
That's why coalitions are forming, to raise political interest in passing EPR legislation, said Mouw. “We are going to see more aggressive advocacy for EPR.”
With the backing of Greenwich, Conn.-based Nestlé Waters North America Inc., Paul Gardner, a former recycling association official and Minnesota legislator, has formed Recycling Reinvented with the goal of getting support and introducing EPR legislation in four to six non-bottle-bill states next year.
In addition to Recycling Reinvented and Cradle², other groups have been formed to improve the recovery of packaging materials, though not necessarily through EPR programs: the Sustainable Packaging Coalition; the American Institute for Packaging and the Environment (Ameripen); Canada's PAC Next; and Action to Accelerate Recycling, a group of 90 corporations, trade groups, environmental and governmental leaders that met three months ago to devise a plan to push packaging recycling levels higher.
“The field is now full of people trying to provide leadership … in any way, shape or form,” said Mouw.
Gardner, executive director of Recycling Reinvented of Shoreview, Minn., has said EPR is a new concept in the U.S. and will require a “cultural change.”
Getting EPR programs adopted in the U.S. will be a tough, uphill battle politically, said Anne Johnson, director of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition. “EPR in a variety of states without a federal mandate would be very problematic because the economic scenario would be difficult,” she said. “However, there is a lot of pressure to do something, as the economics are driving that. But it would have to be voluntary.”
Gail Tavill, president of Ameripen and vice president of sustainable development at ConAgra Foods Inc., agreed. “There is a need for voluntary programs that could supersede EPR before we get to a federal mandate.”
But others think policy changes — whether EPR plans, landfill bans, mandated recycled content or something else — are necessary to dramatically increase recycling rates.
Among them is Neville Browne, president of CarbonLite Industries LLC, which earlier this year opened up a $58 million bottle-to-bottle, food-grade PET recycling plant in Riverside, Calif.
“Collection rates are intolerable,” said Browne. “You can push it with collection systems, EPR or mandated content laws that say that you have to have x-percent of an earlier version of product in your new product.”
And just six months ago, the National Association for PET Container Resources quietly adopted a position advocating a 10 percent minimum, mandatory post-consumer-content legislation for all rigid plastic packaging.
“It will take government regulation,” said Browne, “to force a transition into an ever-increasing percentage [of products] with remake-able content” — a phrase he's created to describe products designed in a way “totally sympathetic to being recovered and made back into the same product.”
“This would influence many aspects of the product and packaging design ... from material type, to color, to label material, to label glue, to mechanical design, to thickness.”
An example of how initiatives can help is North Carolina, where landfill bans on PET plastic bottles, a tax on tipping fees and mandated recycling programs at bars have increased the amount of materials recovered.
Just in the last two years, the annual amount of PET bottles collected in North Carolina has jumped from 13.5 million pounds to 22.2 million pounds. But those improvements just pushed the N.C. bottle recycling rate up to the national average, and whether more dramatic gains will take place is uncertain, said Mouw.
Nationwide, recycling rates for plastic resins are only increasing slowly — often 1 percent per year.
“We are making incremental progress nationwide on collection. It is not completely stagnant. But the growth in municipal collections and event collections aren't going to get us anything more than marginal collection gains,” said Mouw. “There are too many key areas — commercial buildings, sports venues, hospitals, school, universities and entertainment venues — that are underserved or not served at all.
“And building a system for collection of materials beyond household collection is a very daunting problem,” said Mouw. “And even the household waste stream is still largely an untapped source of material. There are still places where there are huge opportunities for improvement.”
On the corporate side, Kim Jeffery, president and CEO of Nestlé Waters North America Inc., has been alone in tirelessly advocating EPR programs for three years.
“The needle is not going to move forward until we have a system that can get more material back, because we don't have the funds at the municipal level to improve the collection infrastructure,” he said.
“And if we don't have public funds for it, we end up back at the private sector. That's why we are raising the dialogue on it. Sooner or later we'll get someone to buy in.”
In addition to providing the seed money for Recycling Reinvented, Nestlé is also working with a number of non-government organizations to advance ideas for different ways to get packaging and products back for recycling.
“People do think we need to do something different,” said Jeffery. “The challenge is getting people to embrace one idea, and too many consumer-product companies see EPR as a tax.
“Not enough people have connected the dots that it could change the volumes of materials dramatically. They need to get past the idea of EPR as a tax and see it as an opportunity to use recycled content in their products and packaging,” he said.
He stressed the need for coalitions.
“You can't do anything like this by yourself and you need multiple coalitions to achieve policy change,” said Jeffery.
“I'm agnostic and solutions-oriented,” he said. “If someone can come up with a solution better than EPR, I'm willing to listen.”
What's needed, Mouw said, is more information and data for brand owners and recyclers to digest about the benefits and costs of EPR.
As a result, the plastics recycling community isn't sure whether EPR is the right approach to increasing material collection.
“We have looked at the issue some,” said Steve Alexander, executive director of the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers in Washington.
“But our take is that we need to see a specific EPR proposal. At the end of the day, what concerns us is, how do we get material, and would an EPR proposal guarantee that,” Alexander said.
Scott Saunders, general manager of KW Plastics Recycling in Troy, Ala., also takes a cautious view toward EPR.
“We do not have a long history of placing EPR on manufacturing products in the U.S.,” except for consumer electronics and a few products in the automotive industry. “The topic warrants debate, but there also needs to be increased education about EPR.”
Two efforts under way at Ameripen might shed light on those issues, said Tavill. Ameripen is not in favor of EPR.
“We have a report coming out soon on how to increase the recovery of packaging materials and another on the financial impacts of various systems, including EPR, that are designed to improve the recovery of materials,” she said.
“We are learning where the gaps are,” Tavill said.
“We want to make sure we are pulling the triggers on the right approaches.”
But, even if there could be agreement on what approach might increase the amount of materials recycled, the larger problem is overcoming consumer attitudes toward recycling, SPC's Johnson said in a question-and-answer session at the Plastics Recycling Conference in Atlanta earlier this year.
“In the U.S., we sell disposables, consumption and convenience and don't send any signals to consumers that these packaging materials have any value,” she said.
“We have dispassionate consumer attitudes to overcome. We need to bring market forces to bear to have a coherent, unified, consistent approach to bring to consumers. … We need to start bringing in a stewardship ethic to packaging and delivering that message to consumers.”
Tavill agreed: “A lot of people don't believe that packaging has value. Until we can turn that notion on its head, people won't think it's worth it to recycle.”
Johnson said she would like to see a group effort to convey that message to the public.
“We have to make it quite clear that these materials are valuable and that it is absolutely wrong to put them in a landfill,” she said.