Industry-Led Recovery: A Viable Path Forward in the United States
The United States is facing a predicament with respect to how best to increase the recovery and recycling of packaging and printed paper. It’s widely recognized that the recovery system for these materials is underperforming and materials crucial to the sustainable functioning of our economy are being lost to landfill. A primary contributor to underperformance is insufficient capitalization, especially with regard to materials recovery infrastructure as well as insufficient investment in recycling promotion. However, local governments lack the capacity to improve this picture and there is much controversy in regards to what extent and how industry should play a role.
In this context, a spirited debate has arisen regarding the need for and potential cost-effectiveness of a mandated producer responsibility approach to the recovery and recycling of packaging and printed paper (Extended Producer Responsibility or EPR). As a stakeholder in this debate, Tetra Pak is supportive of this conversation and encourages further investigation and cost assessment into what legislative models and program designs could drive recovery performance in a cost-effective way. However, there are concerns that this discussion has devolved into a divisive debate pitting EPR against voluntary product stewardship approaches. With divergent opinions there is a danger of losing momentum while waiting for the dust to settle and losing sight of what really matters — namely, a significant improvement in recycling rates to feed the growing material appetite of the economy. The fact that the United States is in a state of flux with regard to policy direction is not an excuse for status quo. Rather, it’s an opportunity to pilot recovery programs and develop best practices in the US context which will lay a sound foundation for a future with or without EPR.
Coming Together: VPR+
In the absence of clear policy direction, Tetra Pak has chosen to actively engage in Voluntary Producer Responsibility (VPR) – a term that refers to programs for the end-of-life management of packaging established by packaging manufacturers and brand owners implemented without a legislative requirement. We have chosen to engage in VPR on both an individual basis as well as collaboratively through our work with the Carton Council and other packaging industry associations. Our work is propelled by a vision of society in which used packaging is perceived as an economic input as opposed to a waste and consumer uptake of recycling is strong and supported by convenient access to a cost-effective collection and processing network. To translate this vision into reality, our work is guided by principles of voluntary industry leadership, shared financial and operational responsibility along the entire value chain, transparency and fairness in the allocation of costs, industry leadership in recovery system design and implementation, and continuous improvement.
Responsible recovery cannot be achieved by industry alone. We’re encouraging public policy initiatives at the state and local level that support voluntary efforts and underpin effective recovery systems. Examples of state-wide and local policy mechanisms include mandatory recycling, state-wide landfill bans of recyclable packaging, Pay-As-You-Throw policies, recycling goals and so on. We call this VPR+. Only government can authorize the introduction of supporting policies that are crucial to setting recovery targets for designated recyclable materials, ensuring the infrastructure is in place to collect and process these recyclables, and stimulate behaviour change at home, at work and at play to fill the recovery “pipeline.” Ultimately, recovery success relies on the active involvement of consumers and residents in keeping recyclables out of the waste stream – their contribution to a successful recovery system should not be underestimated.
The value of VPR+ is three-fold: industry can take nationwide action today; initiatives will improve recovery in the short-term while also forming a better foundation for establishing an efficient EPR program if EPR legislation is implemented in future years; and voluntary programs can be designed and implemented in a harmonized manner across municipal and state boundaries. Voluntary optimization initiatives undertaken by the Carton Council that have led to improved recovery include funding waste audits and participating in system design studies to ensure decisions are based on robust and reliable data as well as making investments in MRFs and North American fiber mills and creating links between municipalities, brokers and end-markets to increase demand for carton material and keep the commodity value at a stable price.
Through VPR+, market leaders can build momentum for widespread adoption of responsible recovery practices by being the first to navigate design and operational choices and demonstrate the most successful path forward. This period of momentum building will also allow time for the necessary infrastructure and recycling culture to evolve across the country. However, in order to be effective, voluntary industry-led actions must be underpinned by strong internal corporate commitments including commitments to fund these initiatives and mechanisms for accountability. And ultimately, other companies must join in supporting market leaders in funding and implementing VPR programs.
Broadening the Analysis
The impetus for the EPR discussion is the fact that the current system is increasingly unable to deliver recovered materials to manufacturers who require stable cost, high quality and less energy-intensive materials to maintain an advantage in an increasingly competitive global economy. This problem has implications for the growth of the packaging industry, job creation, material scarcity and energy inflation. To realize true gains in materials recovery, we must place the goal of increasing the US capacity for collection and recycling front and center in policy analysis. Achieving this goal will require industry to play a much greater role in the future and the development of a sustainable financing mechanism to support improvements.
The outcome of the policy debate is not yet certain; however, given the pressure we face to recover our packaging both internally via corporate commitments and externally from our customers and wider society, indecision and inaction in state legislatures cannot impede our progress. We see VPR+ as the most viable alternative that can be implemented immediately and serves to lay a foundation that will control industry costs under EPR, if it is implemented in the future.
Elisabeth Comere is the director of environment and government affairs for Tetra Pak in North America, the world leader in packaging and food processing solutions. She joined the company in 2006 as Environment Manager for Europe where she helped define and drive Tetra Pak’s environmental strategy. She joined the North American operations in 2010, focusing on advancing Tetra Pak’s commitment to sustainability in the US and Canada, and she is active in various industry and customer packaging and sustainability initiatives. Elisabeth previously served as a political adviser to a member of the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, and headed the environment department of the Food & Drink Industry group in Europe.
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