Return to Sender
The combination of retailer and consumer demand for more sustainable packaging, municipalities’ tighter-than-ever waste management budgets and anxiety regarding future resource scarcity is fueling U.S. policies to hold producers (typically brand owners or importers) liable for the costs of managing their packaging at the end of life. But it’s also stimulating smaller scale efforts from individual brand owners.
“Extended producer responsibility is a policy instrument to shift the economic burden of managing post-consumer products or materials to the [manufacturers],” explains Anne Johnson, director of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition in Charlottesville, Va.
EPR includes end-of-life activities such as collection, recycling and disposal of products and packaging. “At its heart, it’s a financial mechanism to shift the burden toward industry,” Johnson says. “The extended view is that while you shift it to industry, they in turn roll it back to consumers.”
Proponents of the strategy say manufacturers have the greatest responsibility to curb and dispose of waste. That accountability also transfers, to some degree, to consumers who, as Johnson points out, will likely face higher prices as manufacturers pass along their EPR costs.
EPR packaging programs have existed in Europe since the early 1990s and are now operating in many countries worldwide. The Canadian provinces of Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba, for instance, all have EPR packaging programs. Manitoba’s is the newest, just launching in April.
In Ontario’s Blue Box recycling program and Quebec’s curbside recycling system, producers currently pay 50 percent of the net operating cost of municipal recycling. Manitoba’s program requires producers to pay 80 percent, and Ontario’s government is pushing to increase producer responsibility to 100 percent in that province.
Despite the global drive toward EPR for packaging, however, producer responsibility in the United States historically has focused on products and their components-electronics, rechargeable batteries, mercury and paint, for example-rather than packaging.
But that is changing. “America has had two quite breathtaking events in the last few months from an EPR perspective,” says Derek Stephenson, president of Toronto-based consultancy StewardEdge Inc., which has worked closely with provincial governments in Canada to develop and/or manage their EPR programs.
“One is that Vermont has introduced EPR legislation specifically identifying packaging…and secondly, Maine passed the first framework EPR legislation. That essentially gives the state power to designate any product [as part of] an EPR program,” including packaging, Stephenson explains.
In the United States, “we really are starting to look at [producer responsibility] in a more comprehensive fashion than we have up to this point,” says Garth Hickle, product stewardship team leader with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency in St. Paul, Minn.
Until the introduction of the Vermont bill, “which specifically delineates packaging and printed material, we have not had much consideration from a holistic packaging standpoint,” Hickle says.
Coke Takes the LeadNot all brand owners are waiting passively for the new EPR laws to take effect. Some are taking responsibility for their packaging now.
Coca-Cola, for instance, closely manages the entire life cycle of its packaging, starting at the concept stage and continuing through post-consumer package recovery. In the case of PET bottles, Coca-Cola addresses remanufacturing, as well.
“We require designers to know what the end-of-life scenario is for [each] package,” says Scott Vitters, Coca-Cola’s director of sustainable packaging. When Coca-Cola looks at the issue of recyclability, which is frequently part of that scenario, Vitters says it considers whether it’s commercially viable to recycle a particular material. “If not,” he says, “then, in our opinion, it’s not recyclable.”
The company’s recently launched PlantBottle meets the criterion of commercial recyclability; it can be recycled the same way as a traditional PET bottle. But in contrast to 100 percent petroleum-based PET containers, the PlantBottle adds renewable resources to the mix-incorporating 30 percent plant-based materials.
Coca-Cola’s PlantBottle “represents the kind of thinking we do on every package,” says Vitters, “from looking at the sustainability of the agricultural products that are used, to responsible sourcing strategies, to how it would be managed at the end of life.”
He says Coca-Cola has even developed, under laboratory conditions, a 100 percent bio-based, recyclable plastic; though the material is not yet commercially viable for beverage bottles.
End-of-life package management at Coca-Cola also extends to bottle and can collection, which, Vitters explains, is somewhat unique. “There’s traditionally been a lot of focus by brand owners around designing packages to be more environmentally sustainable,” he says, “but it gets a little more quiet when you start talking about the collection of the materials.”
Not for Coke, though. In 2007, the company’s largest bottler formed Coca-Cola Recycling LLC to collect packaging materials it commonly uses, particularly PET and aluminum. A stand-alone, for-profit company, Coca-Cola Recycling “is focused on collecting 100 percent of the bottles and cans that we put in the marketplace by 2020,” Vitters says.
To close the loop between the PET bottles Coca-Cola collects and new bottles made from that collected material, Coca-Cola and Spartanburg, S.C.-based United Resource Recovery Corp. last year opened what they characterize as the largest bottle-to-bottle PET recycling plant in the world. The plant processes bottles collected at universities, office and retail centers and large-scale events into plastic chips, which are then shipped to Coca-Cola plants to make new bottles; the chips are sold to other customers, as well.
Taking it BackTake-back programs are not unique to Coca-Cola. In fact, they are increasingly popular as a way for brand owners to assume responsibility for their packaging’s end of life.
A national take-back program created by New York-based Origins collects post-consumer cosmetics packaging, a type not usually addressed by municipal recycling systems because the materials in such packaging aren’t readily recognized.
The “Return to Origins” recycling program is brand agnostic, accepting primary packaging-bottles, compacts, tubes, caps and jars-from any cosmetics company; consumers can drop off the packaging at Origins stores and department-store counters. Last year, the company collected 7,500 pounds of packaging, which it sorted and recycled or had converted into energy.
Another such program, called Gimme 5, targets polypropylene, identified by the number five recycling code. Londonderry, N.H.-based Stonyfield Farm and Kennebunk, Maine-based Tom’s of Maine both participate in Gimme 5, which encourages consumers to drop off used polypropylene packaging at Whole Foods Market stores or mail in clean containers.
The collected plastic is converted by Preserve in Waltham, Mass., into toothbrushes, tableware and other consumer products. Last year, its first year in action, Gimme 5 collected more than 45,000 pounds of polypropylene, and volume this year is expected to be three to four times greater.
Nancy Hirshberg, Stonyfield’s vice president of natural resources, says the company chose polypropylene for its yogurt containers years ago because the resin is lightweight and allows for the use of less material, greatly reducing the company’s environmental impact. “But when we made that decision,” says Hirshberg, “we knew that number five plastic was not accepted in most recycling facilities. It was up to us to find other ways to deal with our packaging waste.”
Gimme 5 is one of the ways Stonyfield does it. “It allows us to reduce our post-consumer packaging waste by turning our used cups into high-quality, functional products,” says Hirshberg. “The Gimme 5 program acts as the last step in [our] ‘Healthy Planet’ life cycle.” BP
Where to go for more information…
Sustainable Packaging Coalition