Public-Private Partnerships Help Increase Recycling
America, respected worldwide as an innovative and resourceful nation, is falling down on the job when it comes to recycling. Although its recycling rates have improved dramatically since Congress passed the Solid Waste Disposal Act in 1965, the US is way behind leading European countries that have gotten serious about recycling and turning waste into energy, notes BioCycle and the Earth Engineering Center of Columbia University in this infographic.
With landfills around the country overflowing, and many states exporting their waste, recycling is critical to protecting the planet for future generations. Yet the latest figures from the EPA, released in early March, tell us Americans need to step up their efforts: The overall US recycling rate for Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) fell from 34.7 percent in 2011 to 34.5 percent in 2012.
These numbers are disquieting when you put pounds to percentages, using EPA statistics, and realize Americans generated 251 million tons of MSW in 2012 and recycled or composted only 87 million tons of that waste. So every little percentage point counts.
And these numbers become downright alarming when you consider the claims of Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Edward Humes, who maintains the EPA’s annual “trash bible” of waste statistics “uses an outdated method that vastly underestimates our waste and overestimates our recycling.” If he is correct, Americans may have even further to go than they think when it comes to recycling. For instance, the Center for American Progress estimates the U.S. generated 390 million tons of trash, or 7 pounds per person per day, in 2013, which is substantially higher than EPA estimates.
Yet there’s also a silver lining in the EPA’s numbers: The nature of the waste stream is evolving to include less solid refuse per capita with more packaging being recycled (51.5 percent in 2012, up from 38 percent in 2000), notes Food Production Daily.
That’s progress, but still not good enough. So how can we increase these numbers further?
The good news is this is a very attainable goal. As Humes notes in his 2012 book, “Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash,” and summarizes in Forbes, “Waste is the one big social problem anyone can do something about—and doing it now only helps the planet, but fuels prosperity too.”
For instance, while we continue to bury about two-thirds of our waste in landfills every year—and squander raw materials worth an estimated $20 billion or more, notes Humes, “Austria, Germany, Sweden, Belgium and Denmark have all cut landfilling below 4 percent, generating energy, heat and new products out of the very same stuff Americans throw away.”
Cross-collaboration is key.
A two-year study of the nation’s 100 largest cities completed in 2013 by the American Institute for Packaging and the Environment (AMERIPEN) found that “no one program in isolation can maximize recovery of used packaging materials in a community.” The report also maintained that recycling is no longer solely the responsibility of municipalities.
American businesses are coming to the same conclusion independently and forging programs to address them.
At Tetra Pak, where recycling has long been a global and local priority, we co-founded the Carton Council of North America to expand carton recycling in the US and Canada–in 2009, long before the AMERIPEN study. To do so, we enlisted the cooperation of our closest competitors. Voluntary public-private partnerships including industry companies and organizations, recycling facilities and local governments—is core to the philosophy behind the Carton Council. And the results are proving the efficacy of this strategy. To date, household access to carton recycling increased 160 percent in the U.S. in less than four years. And according to Tetra Pak’s environmental update, released in early March, 43 billion of its cartons are being recycled worldwide, up from 39 billion.
In fact, more and more companies are teaming up with local governments to create public-private partnerships that educateconsumers about what can be recycled as well as how and where. The impetus for the move to public-private partnerships comes from the realization that a successful recycling program is multifaceted and includes not only robust recycling facilities but also education, incentives and supportive policies, says AMERIPEN, noting that when all of these elements are in place, consumers are more inclined to act.
This begs an obvious question: How to put all of these elements in place?
Industry leaders must band together and organize coalitions of private and public sector representatives to create scalable but phased structures to implement recycling programs.
One example is the Southeast Regional Development Council (SERDC), a collaborative organization comprised of industry, state governments and other key stakeholders in 11 states. SERDC’s chief goal is to collect higher-quality recyclable materials faster and in greater volume. We met with Carton Council and other group members this past winter in Atlanta to discuss strategies to raise municipal recycling rates. The outcome of this dialogue was an entirely new collaborative organization, led by the Curbside Value Partnership, which will rely on public-private partnerships to increase recycling on a city-by-city basis.
In Florida, a promising group of businesses and associations has come together to encourage recycling. The Florida Recycling Partnership (FRP) includes organizations representing restaurateurs, beverage makers and waste management companies, among others. While it doesn’t presently include municipal members, it does show how it pays off to pool resources, and has been meeting with lawmakers to facilitate recycling. Recently, the governor sent a letter to the group, expressing his gratitude for its efforts.
In Oregon, Jackson County’s government as well as those of nearby towns have partnered with local waste haulers to provide resources to spread the word about recycling. Through the Jackson County Recycling Partnership, the community has received a recycling directory, which enables individuals to locate nearby recycling facilities. The group also hosts special events such as a household hazardous waste collection day and “plastic round-up,” where consumers can drop off their recyclables, and offers locations that accept waste from prescription medications.
Most recently, at Wal-Mart’s Sustainable Product Expo on April 29, the retailer spearheaded the launch of a groundbreaking recycling initiative, the $100 million Closed Loop Fund, which is expected to become an innovative investment vehicle to finance package recycling efforts nationwide. The Fund’s other founding members include Coca-Cola North America, Goldman Sachs, Campbell Soup Company, Kellogg Company, General Mills, Johnson & Johnson Family of Consumer Companies, Keurig Green Mountain, Monsanto, PepsiCo, Procter & Gamble, SC Johnson and Unilever.
The participation of these major corporations in the Closed Loop Fund, and the other efforts mentioned here, signals that public-private partnershipsare the next step to increasing recycling rates and reducing the amount of solid waste collected in the US. We look forward to seeing the development of and participating in more of these partnerships throughout the country.
Elisabeth Comere is responsible for environment at Tetra Pak – 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 and contributed shaping recycling for cartons in Europe. Since 2010, she is based in the U.S., focusing on advancing the Tetra Pak’s commitment to sustainability in the U.S. and Canada and is involved in various industry and customer packaging and sustainability initiatives. Prior to this, she 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. She is currently a member of the board for the American Institute for Packaging and the Environment (AMERIPEN) and is vice president for Government Affairs for the Carton Council. Comere currently resides in the Chicago area. For further environmental insights from her, visit www.doingwhatsgood.us.
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