Why It's Time to Rethink Recycling in the US

Why It's Time to Rethink Recycling in the US

Image CC licensed by Flickr user ToddMorris

Recycling reduces litter, conserves natural resources, saves energy and decreases emissions of greenhouse gases

We recognize that for a beverage company like Nestle, it's an important aspect of enjoying the health and taste benefits of our product for consumers to know that the bottle they are drinking from will be captured and re-used. It's also important for all packaging and finished products to be captured and have a proper "home" at the end of life, either composted back to nature or collected for future re-use. Recycling is a cornerstone of a sustainable society. 

At Nestlé Waters North America, we have a stated goal of achieving a 60 percent recycling rate for all PET plastic beverage containers in America by 2018 -- not just our own packaging. In our efforts to identify workable solutions to reach that goal, we have to rethink the recycling challenge.

The Recycling Problem in the U.S.

Recycling in the United States has traditionally been a function of local governments and NGOs, leaving a patchwork of recycling mandates, incentives, funding formulas and programs in communities across the country. While recycling saves energy and provides environmental benefits, recycling rates, currently at 25-30 percent, are not improving significantly. Logistics costs are rising and government fiscal crises jeopardize the viability of programs.

Today, 10 states have traditional bottle bills. California has a variation on that theme. Bottle bills, however, aren't the answer. The problem with bottle bills is they create an enormous government bureaucracy, do only a reasonable job of diverting a very small portion of the waste stream -- beverage containers -- from landfills and do nothing to build curbside, public space and commercial recycling infrastructure. Bottle bills also lack consistent public education about the importance of recycling.   

Even more importantly, perhaps, is that bottle bill-style recycling is not expandable to other packaging, paper or compostable waste because these mandates rely on getting all of the "empties" back to the store. Our food stores do not have the physical space to play this role, nor should our food stores be the place we bring our garbage.

Further, bottle bills do nothing to address infrastructure for paper recycling, which accounts for 40 percent of landfill waste, only reinforcing that bottle bills are not solving the need for broader recycling solutions.

What is even more unfortunate about government-run bottle deposit jurisdictions is they break a basic trust with the consumer and the beverage industry, who have paid an environmental tax, but are not receiving the full environmental benefit. The handling fees paid by industry and the unredeemed deposits paid by consumers do not go toward enhancing a state's environmental infrastructure. Instead, they typically go into general revenues, only to be used who knows where. We have to do better than this -- and we can.

Extended Producer Responsibility: A Solution That Can Work

We propose a version of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) where the industry takes sole responsibility for its packaging and, in partnership with its consumers and governments, operates an industry-led, nonprofit organization across a given state. In  return for a nominal fee paid by the consumer for every consumer packaged good purchased, this model invests all monies received into building best-in-class municipal curbside recycling, public spaces and commercial recycling, and public education programs.

Typically with EPR models, each consumer product goods industry sector would create its own stewardship organization and/or work with other sectors to do so. It would also work with its retail partners and its consumers to collect the fee, then with municipalities or private recyclers across a given state to build and/or enhance their curbside, public spaces and commercial recycling programs.

The Canadian province of Manitoba has this system already in place. It is known as the "hybrid recycling model" or "Manitoba model." This industry-led organization is subsidizing municipal curbside recycling programs 80/20 and is funding the entire cost of establishing public and commercial recycling programs, as well as creating public education and mass communications initiatives. Manitoba intends to divert 75 percent of its containers from landfills in the next three years.   

The Business Case for Extended Producer Responsibility

EPR benefits both businesses and consumers because it lowers costs and helps motivate businesses to get creative and find ways to responsibly manage products through their full lifecycle, including reducing waste and operating costs. Further, the materials and resources used in today's products are valuable, and with an expandable EPR approach that allows for the collection of all reusable waste, more can be recaptured to ensure businesses have materials for new products tomorrow.

America needs to band together now to address the recycling issue. To do so effectively, we need robust curbside recycling programs for homes and industry, readily accessible recycling in public areas where people consume beverages, and ongoing public education to ensure consumers feel good about doing their part.

We've seen the potential power of EPR, and we are bullish on its prospects for recycling in the United States.

Image CC licensed by Flickr user ToddMorris.