This article appeared in the February/March 2013 issue of El Empaque magazine.
Recovery of packaging materials after they have fulfilled their purpose is one area that industry and consumers universally agree needs improvement. It could lead to improved economic outcomes through jobs, new business opportunities, reduced waste, remanufactured materials, enhanced environmental outcomes and improvements in communities. This is the trifecta of sustainability. However, to achieve it we need the right type of cultural stewardship to lead us there. This is the rub. In some cases, we think market forces will get us there; in other cases, voluntary actions. When those fail, we turn to regulation. Despite good intentions and market forces, history has shown that communities and industries seldom have the discipline, or quite frankly the cooperative action required to succeed to manage wastes voluntarily.
As Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) for packaging is becoming an area of policy focus in Central and South America, I thought I would share some observations on issues related to EPR from the U.S. A first observation is – don’t assume free markets work when it comes to wasted materials – particularly when we have done a good job of creating the single-use disposal mentality. In the U.S., we throw out the equivalent of 27,000 Airbus A320s each year, according to Alcoa. That is about 1.3 billion pounds of aluminum cans worth about $1 billion thrown in landfills. Aluminum is highly sought after by industry. It is energy intensive to manufacture with a large environmental footprint. Despite its value, many people still throw aluminum cans away. The lesson is we create behaviors through marketing that evolve over time into a consumer culture that conflicts with market signals and can ultimately drive the need for regulation from an economic and environmental point of view. This will especially be true in a world of dwindling resources and large populations. A more economical solution would be to develop intrinsic stewardship behaviors through voluntary marketing. However experience suggests there is typically not enough alignment across industries to do this. Thus we end up with regulatory or policy solutions like EPR.
It took 30 years and a lot of regulations to make the transition from the open dumpsites that I remember visiting with my Dad in the 1960s to the engineered landfills of today. In 1988, the EPA reported 7,924 municipal solid waste landfills and in 2009, this number decreased to 1,908. The change reflected a move toward privatization and the implementation of significant regulation in the 1970s. It also took a lot of investment. But waste management is very profitable because every locality needs to have garbage removed – as cost-effectively as possible. And communities began to ask for recycling services – as cheaply as possible.
So waste management companies began collecting recyclables. And the economic comparison of landfilling to recycling was born despite the fact that the two processes offer vastly different outcomes. The take away is that the development of recycling in the U.S. has been ad hoc and fundamentally local without any clear policy or market objectives. The discussion of EPR has highlighted a complex industry with a lot of special interests. It is clear that trying to change a highly entrenched industry with lots of infrastructure is very hard. I believe that there is a tremendous opportunity for industry and communities that have immature recovery systems to design highly effective systems for their markets when facing EPR. But to create a good recovery system there is an important question to ask. What do we want to achieve? Is the goal to create sustainable materials recovery systems where we collect high quality materials that can be remanufactured striving for highest and best long-term economic and environmental value through a variety of recovery mechanisms? Or is the goal to create recovery systems where we collect the most material as cheaply as possible with little thought to how the downstream value chain finds economic value? This is a fundamental question that warrants consideration if one wants to design an economically robust recovery system for packaging with beneficial outcomes for people, profit and the planet.
Johnson, Anne. “Thoughts on Extended Producer Responsibility for Packaging.” El Empaque Feb. – Mar. 2013: 62. Print.
Anne Johnson is a Principal and Vice President at Resource Recycling Systems. She is an expert at applying life cycle thinking to materials management and enhancing products and process design. Anne has served as a strategic advisor for numerous companies, government panels and trade groups and is the former director of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition. Contact Anne at firstname.lastname@example.org.