A new report from the environmental and social responsibility advocacy group As You Sow says that U.S. packaging companies “lag their global peers” in taking responsibility for post-consumer packaging. The group also says that there is a need for some form of a mandated producer responsibility program to finance “an upgrade to the recycling infrastructure in the U.S.,” and that the “explosive” increase of plastic packaging requires special attention.
“There is a need to exert greater focus on plastics, which have come to dominate the packaging sector and pose special challenges for collection and recycling,” the report said.
“Society needs to start prioritizing and limiting the kinds of plastics used in packaging,” companies should make commitments to use “far higher levels of recycled content” in their packaging, and the production of single-use plastic products should be “discouraged and dis-incentivized.”
San Francisco-based As You Sow estimates $11.4 billion in post-consumer packaging was discarded in the U.S. in 2010, with more than $8.3 billion — or nearly 73 percent of that — in plastic.
“Despite modest progress on container recycling, companies must acknowledge an ongoing failure of corporate leadership on recycling in the U.S., just as political leaders must acknowledge similar failures in public policy,” said the report, “Unfinished Business: The Case for Extended Producer Responsibility for Post-Consumer Packaging,” which was released July 18.
“Companies need to stop ducking accountability” and factor into future operating costs the expense associated with collecting and recycling materials, said the report, written by Conrad McKerron, senior director of As You Sow.
McKerron focuses on engaging companies to develop producer responsibility programs for post-consumer packaging and end-of-life electronics.
“We simply cannot afford to bury valuable packaging material,” he said.
The report does not dismiss the positive impact that some individual corporate initiatives have had. But it said some type of extended producer responsibility program is needed to really ratchet up recycling rates nationwide.
“Voluntary ... individual packaging take-back commitments by companies like Starbucks and Estée Lauder are laudable and can be substantive,” said the report. But such actions have not resulted in significant increases in recycling nationwide and in the long run can cause market distortions.
Proactive companies that invest in recycling are “incurring additional costs not borne by their competitors,” it said.
The report said the time has come to shift financial responsibility for collecting and recycling used packaging from taxpayers to producers through extended producer responsibility.
“A mandated system with fees based on materials put on the market by each producer creates more equity, a level playing field, and badly needed resources to upgrade [the] U.S. recycling infrastructure,” it said.
“Given its high consumption rates, the U.S. should take action now to improve its waste collection infrastructure to capture a far greater amount of post-consumer materials and develop closed-loop systems that will efficiently recycle these increasingly valuable materials.”
In addition, a way needs to be found to limit the types of plastics used in packaging, especially since the amount of plastics produced globally is growing at 9 percent a year, said the report, citing a November report on marine debris.
The November report was issued by the scientific and technical advisory panel of the Washington-based Global Environmental Facility, a global financier of projects designed to protect the environment.
“More plastics were produced in the first decade of the present century than in the entire preceding century,” said the As You Sow report, and “a bewildering array of plastics ... have come to dominate packaging, [yet] only 2 million tons out of 30 million tons of plastics waste generated annually are recycled.”
It is unrealistic to expect waste processors to devise separate recycling streams for all the different kinds of plastics that can disrupt recycling and processing facilities, the report said.
“Packaging users [in the U.S.] need to limit packaging types to those that are most recyclable,” following the example of the Canadian Grocers Initiative, which mandated the use of PET thermoformed packaging for most food packaging in grocery stores starting this year.
In addition, the report said that single-use plastics — especially items such as takeout food containers, utensils and packaging most likely to end up on beaches and in oceans — should be “discouraged and disincentivized wherever possible.”
As You Sow also took food retailers to task for the paucity of systems to collect and recycle packaging materials at or near their locations.
“Food retailers should develop on-premise collection and recycling of post-consumer packaging and public space recycling outside and adjacent to their outlets,” the report said. “Franchisees should be required to adhere to the same rules as parent-owned and operated locations.”
The report also called the 12.1 percent recycling rate for plastic packaging in the U.S., as calculated by the U.S Environmental Protection Agency, “dismal.”
“Nearly 70 percent of all post-consumer plastic, packaging ... lacks any form of strategy —- curbside collection, store drop-off, user taxes, product bans, or deposits — to incentivize reduction or provide recycling.”
“A key element of a 21st century corporate sustainability policy must be a proactive and comprehensive approach to reducing and eliminating product and packaging waste, both in the production and post-consumer phase,” said the report. “Few U.S. companies have such policies.”
The report chided companies “that cling to token steps like paying a third party to encourage consumers to mail back used packaging for re-use,” saying that such companies are not really serious about dealing with packaging waste.
“A company may be able to create a temporary, feel-good public relations halo with modest subsidy of such efforts,” said the report, “but the amount of packaging that gets recycled in comparison to curbside or deposit systems is minimal.” It noted that the amount of materials recycled through those programs is generally not disclosed.
Companies that will thrive in the future need to acknowledge and plan now for how to operate sustainably in the coming era of resource limits, said the report.
Companies need to give preference to packaging materials that can be easily and repeatedly recycled, and start now to invest in materials that will perform well in closed-loop recycling systems and to phase out those that don't, it said.
The report recommended that businesses that place substantial amounts of packaging on the U.S. market take responsibility for collecting and recycling post- consumer packaging.
Companies need to engage their peers and other stakeholders and reach agreement on binding producer responsibility legislation that sets recovery goals of 75 percent or higher for all individual kinds of packaging and set an aggressive timeline for meeting them, it said.
The report also said that a mandated packaging EPR program in the U.S. should address all packaging types, apply to commercial, industrial and residential packaging and include the following:
* Management and funding of the program by the producers of the packaging.
* Aggressive recovery targets with enforceable penalties set by government for failure to meet goals.
* Participation by all industries that produce waste streams, with each producer contributing an equitable share to the program.
* Transparent cost allocation.
* Transparency in EPR collection and recycling data, including data from commercial service providers.
* Industry-funded away-from-home collection, as well as curbside programs.
* Sophisticated educational/promotional programs to ensure consumer participation.
* Mechanisms that work synergistically with existing container deposit programs.
* A focus on materials management and market development for all recyclables.
* Provisions to reduce and phase out the use of non-recyclable packaging.
* No incineration, as that sends the wrong message to consumers and markets on materials conservation and efficiency.
In addition, As You Sow said states and the EPA should propose policies that require companies to move toward genuine source reduction to ensure that businesses proactively adapt sustainable production practices before resource shortages occur.