Make no mistake about it. Reducing packaging waste and incorporating product stewardship into business strategy has become a mainstream focus of packaging firms.
That shift, which began two years ago and is picking up speed, has spawned a growing group of organizations with similar missions — but different approaches.
“We want to increase recycling rates, recycle materials on a larger scale, and do it at a lower-cost per household,” says Paul Gardner, executive director of Recycling Reinvented, a 6-month-old nonprofit group funded mostly by Nestlé Waters North America Inc., which advocates for extended producer responsibility — or EPR — legislation at the state level.
Likewise, the American Institute for Packaging and the Environment (Ameripen) is out to drive up recovery rates of packaging in the U.S. — but through voluntary product stewardship efforts and through partnerships and collaborations with others, said the group's executive director, Joan Pierce, who also is director of packaging sustainability at Colgate-Palmolive Co.
Ameripen was formed by large consumer goods brand-owner companies, packaging converters and raw material companies 18 months ago.
“It is critical that we partner with you. If we're not well-connected and collaborating with you, we won't succeed,” Pierce said at the recent Resource Recycling conference in Austin.
“We want to provide data and science-based information — not personal opinions — to help companies and organizations take action. We are committed to working from facts and data.”
The first step in that process for Ameripen is a web-enabled, searchable and interactive “product recovery knowledge map” on its website, which allows its 30 members to develop recycling plans based on data.
“It lists and has a profile for all materials across all phases of the recovery system,” she said. “That helps us and our members determine what is the best thing to do to increase the recycling of each specific packaging material.”
The map was developed by environmental consulting firm Resource Recycling Systems, based in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Resource Recycling also is working to develop data for the Foodservice Packaging Institute of Falls Church, Va., which earlier this year formed its Plastics Recovery Group, to encourage recovery of used plastic food-service packaging in North America. FPI also has a Paper Recovery Alliance.
“There has been a shift in thinking,” said Lynn Dyer, president of FPI, which represents companies that convert paper, plastics, aluminum and bioplastics into single-use food-service packaging. “We have gone from viewing trash as waste to viewing it as a valuable resource,” she said. “There also has been a shift in market supply and in demand, as we are starting to see more post-consumer recycled content in food-service packaging.”
The problem remains, she said, that single-use food-service packaging is “typically not being recovered after use because of limited infrastructure and end markets. In addition, no single company has enough influence to affect broad change alone,” Dyer said.
She said industry needs to work collaboratively on a number of solutions to those challenges, not just one.
Alcoa Inc. also is working with coalitions to push recycling rates higher. Alcoa's recycling director, Elizabeth Schmitt, said the goal is to move past discussion and “get to action.” In February, the aluminum producer pulled together 90 people from more than 70 organizations for an Action to Accelerate Recycling summit in Dallas.
“We want to get people to voluntarily work together to drive rapid step-change in U.S. recycling rates for packaging and printed materials,” she said. “Our goal is to drive recycling rates higher and provide incentives for consumers to recycle.”
With the exception of Recycling Reinvented, most of the organizations prefer voluntary industry-driven solutions and not an EPR system, which involves government — usually in setting goals and performing oversight.
Despite that difference, recycling-oriented groups have a number of things in common. Among them: making the recovery of packaging and products efficient and identifying areas where improvements can be made.
To do that, Dyer said: “We have to determine the economic viability of current and new initiatives … [and] identify market-driven recovery options.”
Pierce agreed with that assessment: “We want to make sure that as we drive improvements in the recovery of packaging, that it's efficient,” she said. “Cost is the big issue because the whole process of driving improvements is very expensive.”
Assessing the financing for any initiative is a priority, Pierce said.
To that end, Ameripen formed a committee in late July whose mission is to secure financial resources for its projects.
Action to Accelerate Recycling is working on its own plans, and has identified reverse vending machines and on-site collection at workplaces and other premises as opportunities to expand recycling. It also is looking to develop data standards and boost curbside recycling.
“We hope to have a pilot kicked off sometime in 2013 for scaling up curbside recycling — to make it larger and to do it right,” Alcoa's Schmitt said. To do that, AAR wants to collaborate with Ameripen as well as upstream material manufacturers interested in capturing that material, she said.
AAR plans to develop “five or so best practices that can be scaled up and deployed across the board” to increase recycling on-site or at premises, she said. That effort will be led by the glass industry and companies that sell major brands of beer and will be done in conjunction with the National Restaurant Association.
AAR also wants to build on the Keep America Beautiful/Ad Council campaign intended to inspire people to be accountable for recycling packaging and printed materials, Schmitt said.
“Education and awareness is critical to driving recycling to make it a consumer norm,” she said. “Brands need to be involved, but it is in the consumers' hands to make a difference.”
At the corporate level, she noted that Alcoa bought out its recycling partner, Novelis, and took 100 percent ownership, at the end of August, of Evermore Recycling LLC, the world's largest purchaser of used aluminum cans. And earlier this year, Alcoa invested $10 million for a 10 percent equity stake in Electronic Recyclers International Inc., a large U.S. collector of electronic waste.
Some groups also are keeping an eye on the legislative front, particularly in light of increased activity regarding EPR.
Ameripen, for example, has organized a government affairs committee to lobby and influence legislation in favor of environmentally responsible policies rather than new laws.
“I do not feel legislation is necessary to resolve this issue,” Pierce said. “We certainly do have a problem, but if you have every stakeholder sitting at a table with an open mind, you will get a solution,” she said.
“We have the technology, the desire and we will achieve the results. We don't need a legislator to tell us what to do.”
However, Gardner, head of Recycling Reinvented, believes EPR programs are the “best opportunity to increase recycling on a large scale.”
EPR — a mandatory form of product stewardship in which brand owners assume the cost of recycling collection and allocate those costs among themselves — can drive lower costs, more efficiency and result in higher quality materials for domestic manufacturers to use, he said.
“You don't want to maximize recycling and just get a lot of junk and low-quality materials,” said Gardner, who was executive director of the Recycling Association of Minnesota from 1997 to 2006, and served two terms in Minnesota's House of Representatives.
Gardner sees EPR as essential to solving the packaging waste problem.
“You can harmonize materials collection. You can scale up best practices. You can take away the patchwork system we have now and do things on a regional or state level,” he said. “You can standardize measurement each ton properly.”
Besides, he said, companies need to be involved in EPR efforts because if “legislators are left to their own devices, companies can get saddled with something worse and also get a lack of uniformity. It is better to go to the gatekeepers of supply and start there” to design the system for collection of materials.
“We are still planning on targeting several non-bottle-bill states for legislation in 2013,” said Gardner. “We have several states we are looking at simultaneously.”
The groups agree that there are challenges ahead and that while improvements can be made in the short-term, creating the right solution for the future remains a long-term effort.
“It will be until the end of the decade for something like [EPR] to mature,” said Gardner.
Schmitt said “the three biggest obstacles” to boosting the recycling of packaging waste are infrastructure, the right incentives to get consumers to participate and education. “They all pretty much go together,” she said.
“We need public-private partnerships to educate people about what's not being recycled and why it should be, and that incentive piece is an important driver of that, whether it is pay as you throw” programs or something else, she said.
Another obstacle, Schmitt said, can be the “fear of change” at the municipal level. But she remains optimistic, she said.
“Capital funding is tight. But I believe the economics of recycling are becoming better understood, and that the partnerships and dialogues from the AAR summit will equal dividends in the future,” Schmitt said.
Packaging veteran Pierce has no doubt that companies will develop a solution.
“It's a challenge, but there aren't any barriers,” Pierce said. “If you get the right people in a room and that group decides on a destination, you will get there and it will get done because the right people are leading those discussions and because we now share the destination.
“The only barrier is time,” she added. “This is a 12-15 year effort. It is not going to be solved in the short term. We need to drive short-term projects to drive efficiencies and then add long-term projects.”
While some organizations have set goals for increasing recovery rates, she said Ameripen isn't taking that approach at this point.
“We have not set goals for recycling rates,” Pierce said. “We strongly believe in continuous improvement and in driving results. If you sets goals [for rate improvements], you might do something stupid just to reach the goal,” she said.
“And then that goal will cost you more than what you gain.”