An $11 billion quagmire: Corporate waste reduction still lags

Capri Sun drink pouches
FlickrPaul Goyette
Beverage pouches are very difficult to recycle, yet their production is on the rise.

While an estimated $11.4 billion in potential recycling revenue is wasted in the U.S. every year, recycling rates in Europe and elsewhere are considerably higher. Waste and Opportunity 2015 (PDF), a new report from As You Sow and the Natural Resources Defense Council, notes that the lack of producer responsibility laws or equivalent policies is a contributing factor.

“Businesses that place substantial amounts of packaging on the U.S. market ... have used their public policy departments to fight any notion that they should take financial responsibility for recycling materials in the United States,” the report stated, “even though they do so in many other countries.”

47 study subjects, no winners

The report studies the packaging practices of three of the industry sectors most responsible for plastic packaging, the recycling rate of which is less than 14 percent in the U.S. The focus of the report is on fast food restaurants, beverage companies and the consumer goods/grocery sector, “because of the substantial waste associated with a business model in which food is most often taken off-premises in single-use containers.”

Forty-seven companies were analyzed; “none,” the report found, “are doing enough to make their packaging more sustainable.” An analysis of street litter in four Bay Area cities found that half was from fast food restaurants; Starbucks is the only company in the sector to have committed to front-of-house recycling. In the beverage sector, the use of non-recyclable packaging of children's drinks, such as Capri Sun from Kraft, is on the increase; furthermore, “most brands support neither a container deposit nor an EPR (extended producer responsibility) scheme to boost recycling.”

And in the consumer packaged goods and grocery sector, “Use of flexible packaging is growing swiftly, with no apparent strategy by companies that produce it or brands that use it to make it recyclable.”

Does the Closed Loop Fund do enough?

An appendix to the 62-page report, containing comments from the companies themselves, proves illuminating. Despite that most of the companies already comply with EPR regulations in Europe and elsewhere — which certainly contribute to markedly higher recycling rates — not a single company quoted in the report declares its support for such regulations in the U.S.

Instead, a consortium of major companies launched the Closed Loop Fund, a program which plans initial investments amounting to $100 million that will be distributed to municipalities in the form of zero-interest and low-interest loans.

But as Matt Prindiville of Upstream wrote, “The amounts of corporate money in these 'public-private partnerships' are insignificant when compared to the amounts of money that taxpayers and ratepayers pay to clean up after them.”

“The QSR, beverage, and consumer packaged goods (CPG) sectors need to increase engagement on the recycling of postconsumer packaging,” the report concluded. “They must become actively involved in developing a consensus on new, state-level producer responsibility mandates or equivalent policies that will spread a measure of responsibility fairly among brands placing materials on the market; this will result in significant increases in container and packaging recycling rates.”

Also, “A government agency or multilateral stakeholder group with buy-in from the business and environmental communities needs to develop a blueprint for — and credible estimate of the total cost of — boosting U.S. recycling rates to 75 percent or beyond.”

“These companies have not sufficiently prioritized packaging source reduction, recyclability, compostability, recycled content and recycling policies” report author Conrad MacKerron of As You Sow said. “Increased attention to these key attributes of packaging sustainability would result in more efficient utilization of postconsumer packaging, higher U.S. recycling rates, reduced ocean plastic pollution and new green recycling jobs.”

This article first appeared on SocialFunds.