A Commitment to Action: Taking Recycling to the Next Level in the United States
When asked why recycling is so important, my response is simple: it is integral to business. Recycling is a fundamental requirement to uphold competitiveness and reputation as responsible and innovative companies.
For decades, companies and their respective trade associations have invested in various recycling initiatives aimed at recovering their own used packaging and printed paper products. While initially such efforts reaped measurable recovery benefits, very little progress has been made in the past 10 years. We, too, have seen firsthand the benefits of a carton-specific voluntary approach through our own efforts and that of the Carton Council. However, future carton recovery progress relies on addressing the infrastructure, promotional, and harmonization needs that affect the recovery of all packaging and printed paper materials.
Discussion is ongoing among brand owners, packaging manufacturers and other “producers” regarding how to substantially increase material recovery and recycling in the United States via cross-sector collaboration. While it has not led to much action to date, the forums for discussion have kept the conversation alive and have succeeded in elevating the knowledge and awareness level of all stakeholders through the process. The dialogue exposed the risks of inaction as well as the opportunities inherent in a robust recovery system.
Discussions have also led to extensive research conducted by multiple organizations to develop an understanding of the nuances that impact recovery success. AMERIPEN, for instance, has collected data and developed findings regarding what works best to dramatically improve recovery in cities across the US. AMERIPEN’s study combined with other research efforts have laid the groundwork by defining what needs to be done. It is now clearly understood that effective recovery requires a comprehensive set of best practices – optimized infrastructure, effective promotion and education, incentives, policies aimed at boosting recycling participation, and sustainable program funding. Implementing best practices in all of these areas is unreasonable to ask of local governments and is more than any one material sector can bring about on their own.
Forums like Alcoa’s Action to Accelerate Recycling and AMERIPEN have primed stakeholders for collaboration bringing the right people to the table and raising the right questions to facilitate action.
The New Ask
Industry is now rallying around a new call to action: create an organized coalition(s) of private and public sector representatives to create a scalable but phased systems approach to recycling. Building upon past learnings, this approach will leverage pooled resources and use a combination of tools to strategically address priority opportunities as opposed to a series of discreet pilot programs and projects.
Experimentation in Coalition Building
To support the move from talk to collaborative action, my company is launching projects in Tennessee and North Carolina that will target communities with customized action plans addressing multiple barriers to materials recovery performance. Depending on a community’s existing infrastructure and resources, we have identified the policies, practices and investment focus areas that will yield the greatest impact on recovery. Examples include recycling mandates or ordinances for variable-rate waste collection pricing, a transition to single-stream, roll-cart recovery systems, investment in optimizing processing facilities, working with state government to align policy and grant funding with local needs, and so on. We have estimated a total increase in recovery of over 220,000 tons if best practices and a robust outreach and education campaign are brought to bear on recycling programs across Tennessee.
We see our role in this experiment as the catalyst for collaboration. We are now building informal coalitions in Tennessee and North Carolina with key industry and government stakeholders to bring these system improvements to fruition. This experiment is testing a series of approaches on the ground to see what works at the local level allowing for replication elsewhere on a greater scale.
Aiming Higher: The SERDC Coalition
We now want to move forward with regional campaigns for collaborative voluntary producer initiatives – campaigns that build upon the learnings from state-by-state activities and stress best practices in packaging recovery to overcome funding constraints, infrastructure gaps and barriers to policy adoption.
In support of this idea, we took part in the Southeast Recycling Development Council’s (SERDC) Paper & Packaging Symposium this month in Atlanta. Involving over 100 participants, SERDC issued a straightforward call to action: Work together to recover more recyclables, of better quality, and quickly.
A common discussion thread was what distinguishes the SERDC initiative from past efforts and how that will bring about success. Key differences are that SERDC is an established organization of state government and industry partners and other key stakeholders – the influencers are already at the table. Research to inform priorities for the region has been conducted and the group is ready to move on building the organizational mechanism to transition from research to action.
SERDC recovery initiative partners intend to explore the optimum levels of engagement of public and private resources, expertise and funding. Given growing consumer expectations and the threat of government regulation, the risk of inaction surpasses the rationale for a laissez-faire approach. We all have a stake in the outcome of recycling performance in this country and will achieve more by combining forces than through disparate action. We call on you to commit to participating in SERDC’s coalition.
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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