Category Archives: Recycling

In Response: The Conflict of Interest That Is Killing Recycling

The Product Stewardship Institute’s Scott Cassel and Megan Byers respond to the New York Times’ August 15th Opinion piece, The Conflict of Interest That Is Killing Recycling

scrap-metal-trash-landfill-smA crisis can be painful. It can also be an opportunity for much-needed change.

Recent trade restrictions by China have troubled many U.S. industries, as well as municipal recycling programs that rely on Chinese markets. Shrinking markets for recovered material have raised municipal recycling costs. As a result, some recycling programs have closed, while others have stockpiled or disposed of recyclables the public expects to be turned into new products.

The fluctuation of recycling markets is nothing new. But for 50 years, we have failed to recognize that recycling is stifled by an uneven playing field.

It is time to disrupt the current recycling economic model, which relies on taxpayers and municipal governments to pick up the cost of managing waste products and packaging from which companies reap the profits. To date, U.S. corporations have dodged their responsibility to manage their products after consumers use them.

On the surface, it is often cheaper to dispose of used products and packaging than to recycle them (though landfill tipping fees are rising). However, in doing so, we fail to account for the much costlier externalities. In reality, brand owners and consumers are not paying the full cost of production and consumption, which includes environmental and social damages such as the need to continually mine virgin resources for the manufacture of new products. Instead, we experience these costs in the form of water, air, and land pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions leading to climate change. The cost to clean the water, air, and land is much greater than that to prevent contamination in the first place.

Governments often establish recycling programs to reduce litter and waste to improve quality of life for their citizens. Unfortunately, communities are at a huge disadvantage compared to brand owners that benefit from the throw-away economy while paying none of the waste management costs. Furthermore, most waste management companies like things just the way they are now. The status quo allows them to protect their investments in disposal technologies, and they enjoy powerful contractual leverage against municipalities and individual residents.

The real recycling tragedy is not just that municipalities use different bins and labels. It is that every community collects different materials, educates their residents in different ways, and has separate contracts with garbage and recycling haulers that provide different services and incentives. This inefficiency and lack of municipal cohesion is the basis for the recycling and garbage disposal crisis in the U.S.

There is hope. Countries across the world require brand owners – such as Unilever, Procter & Gamble, SC Johnson, General Mills, Pepsi, Amazon, and Walmart – to fund and manage the recycling of materials they put on the market. These companies, which are the same ones fighting change in the U.S., hire a non-profit to operate a network of collection and processing facilities with lean government oversight. This network leverages existing infrastructure and provides options for municipalities. These “producer responsibility” systems collect the same set of materials in every jurisdiction. They provide the same educational materials and symbols, with appropriate regional nuance. They have the same instructions and standards for municipalities and other collectors to keep contamination low.

And they get results. British Columbia, for example, has achieved a 75 percent recovery rate for packaging and printed paper, as compared to the 55 percent average in the U.S. for the same materials. The Canadian province has also reached an enviable contamination rate of 6.5 percent, compared to an average of about 15 percent in the U.S. These systems are in place in Europe (for over 30 years), across Canada (for up to 15 years), and now in Israel, Japan, South Africa, and an increasing number of other countries.

Well-crafted extended producer responsibility frameworks also reward innovation, especially for companies that use less material, switch to readily-recyclable options, and incorporate a higher percentage of recycled content in packaging.

The time has come to bring producer responsibility for packaging to the United States. Consumer product companies and waste management companies have valid concerns about change. But municipalities and taxpayers can no longer bear the sole financial burden for a problem created by societal consumption and brand owners’ poor packaging choices.

If we listen to one another, we can solve this problem together. We must understand the problems created by waste, share common goals, collectively overcome barriers, and agree on the solutions available.

It takes will, but it is long past time to start.

Advertisements

More printed catalogs mean more energy, water and paper gone to waste

By Natalie Nava, Operations Manager, Catalog Choice

A few weeks ago, my grandfather celebrated his 93rd birthday. He lives alone, and so after the celebration my mother and I decided to help go through his mail. In his large pile of mail were 30 calendars from charitable and political organizations my grandfather had sent nominal donations to over the years. If junk mail is a nuisance in your life, you’re not alone. Since the 1990s, national reports have shown that more than 80% people don’t like receiving junk mail and wish they could make it stop.

man shovels mailI oversee operations of Catalog Choice, a service that helps people opt-out of certain types of junk mail, mostly paper catalogs. In 2013, many more catalogs were mailed to American homes compared to previous years – 11.9 billion to be exact (catalog mailings peaked at 19.6 billion in 2007). Why the spike? Because many companies, even those without brick-and-mortar storefronts, consider “multi-channel marketing” important for driving sales. Catalogs also have certain advantages over other kinds of marketing tools; they track return-on-investment more easily than social media campaigns, and (let’s face it) the elegant and expertly-shot layouts in printed catalogs make products come alive in a more visceral way than online.

Restoration Hardware knows this perhaps better than any other merchant: in 2014, their record-breaking, 3,000-page annual catalog boosted sales for the year. But it also sparked a flurry of negative comments on social media about the paper waste from folks who had no interest in purchasing from the company.

So let’s talk about the downsides of all these unwanted catalogs. Aside from Restoration Hardware’s catalog brick arriving on our porches, it’s rare that we consider the impacts of the paper industry. But in fact, its impact is huge. As a few examples, the Department of Energy stated that the paper industry is the fourth largest industrial user of energy, behind chemical production and petroleum and metal refining. Meanwhile, ForestEthics estimates that mail advertisements generate 51.5 million metric tons of greenhouse gases every year.

It’s important to recognize the companies that are printing catalogs more responsibly, such as Patagonia, who uses FSC-certified paper to print their catalog. Even Restoration Hardware purchased carbon offsets for their massive sourcebook! These options are better, but unfortunately they’re not sufficient. Neither is recycling, as it simply cannot neutralize the paper, energy and carbon costs required for the production of new catalogs. And limited recycling infrastructure in some areas means that about 40% of all unwanted catalogs end up in landfills without having ever been opened. What a waste!

Business Reply MailWhen we consider certain realities – water scarcity, consumer privacy concerns, or the increasing amount of purchases made online – is junk mail really worth it? At least from the perspective of businesses, the answer seems to be a resounding yes for now. Meanwhile, there is a growing movement of individuals and organizations pushing corporations to take greater accountability. This movement includes solutions like extended producer responsibility legislation, which would make companies responsible for the final disposal of their products; or a national Do Not Mail list, which would allow people to opt-out of all junk mail in one simple step. We’re excited for this movement to take off, and in the meantime, our goal is for Catalog Choice to spark dialogue about paper consumption and waste issues and help people simplify their lives.

You may create an account at catalogchoice.org to start opting out of catalogues today.

The Story of Stuff Project seeks to transform the way we make, use and throw away Stuff. On March 24, 2015, The Story of Stuff Project acquired Catalog Choice to help people save trees and simplify their lives by reducing unwanted junk mail. Natalie Nava oversees operations of Catalog Choice. You can reach her at natalie@catalogchoice.org.

Tagged , , ,

America the Fearful: Why We Need U.S. Corporate Leadership

Flying high above the Atlantic on my way home from a week of travels to Canada and Scotland, I pondered how America can be such a powerful world leader in technology, the economy, and the military, but so unenlightened regarding trash. We pride ourselves on innovation, bold risk-taking, fierce independence, and toughness. Yet, we are well behind our Canadian and European comrades regarding strategies to turn our country’s waste problem into an opportunity to recover valuable materials, create recycling jobs, and reduce costs. In fact, our corporations display a fear and trepidation of the future that is downright troubling.

What is so disappointing is that most corporations selling products into the U.S. market are operating within much more sophisticated solid waste programs than we have in the U.S. Although we have made progress in managing some problem wastes (e.g., electronics, mercury thermostats and lighting, and paint), the Canadians and Europeans have us beat in so many product areas, particularly packaging.

In Ottawa, Ontario, I moderated and presented on a panel called “Policy Shaping the Landscape” at the PAC NEXT annual conference that PSIco-sponsored. In front of several hundred corporate powerhouses like Unilever, P&G, Nestle, Walmart, Kraft, and Target, my fellow panelists and I discussed the mix of strategies needed to manage all packaging waste in Canada by 2015 – voluntary industry initiatives, extended producer responsibility (EPR), and other regulations. That same conversation is not yet happening in the U.S. And the U.S. representatives of those same corporate powerhouses are avoiding even having that conversation.

September 28, 2012—Scott Cassel speaks at PAC NEXT in Ottawa, Ontario.

As our first session panelist, Michael Goeres, executive director of the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME), provided the context for Canada’s national focus on packaging. According to Goeres, it started in 1989 with the National Task Force on Packaging. The issue reignited during the debate on packaging EPR that started in 2000. And it resurfaced, yet again, with the 2009 Canada-wide Action Plan for Extended Producer Responsibility and Canada-wide Strategy for Sustainable Packaging,which created a central platform on which to implement EPR laws throughout Canada by 2015. Goeres also discussed CCME’s initiative to work with industry to reduce packaging waste, which culminated in the recent announcement of the Design Guidelines for Sustainable Packaging, a voluntary joint initiative between Éco Entreprises Québec (a PSI Sustaining Partner) and the Sustainable Packaging Coalition.

In contrast to our Canadian counterparts, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does not consider waste management to be a federal government issue, but rather a state and local government issue. After a request from state and local agency officials to help solve the growing waste problem, the EPA held five meetings on packaging waste between 2010 and 2011 and even released a report. However, it pulled out soon thereafter, leaving regional EPA branches to follow up.

September 28, 2012—PAC NEXT panelists at Chateau Laurier in Ottawa, Ontario.

The next speaker on our panel, John Coyne, is a Unilever vice president and chairman of Stewardship Ontario, the industry-led product stewardship organization that takes pride in its implementation of Ontario’s six-year old Blue Box EPR program. Of the 1,500 businesses represented by Stewardship Ontario, John said:  “…we are dedicated to supporting our member companies’ drive to innovate – to contribute to making their businesses, packaging, and products more environmentally sustainable and more readily recyclable. We lead through development and investment.”

Here are a few other things he said:

  • “By any measure, the Blue Box is defined and regarded as both a success and a symbol…75 percent of Ontario residents say they consider the Blue Box their primary pro-environment effort …People like it. It makes them feel good about their contribution. More importantly, people use it.
  • “By embracing innovation, by harnessing creativity, by building on our achievements and accomplishments, we aim to be a global leader in responsible product stewardship. At all times, we never lose sight of the fact that our primary job is to meet collection and diversion targets and to prevent waste from filling landfills and fouling waterways.”
  • “We need to ensure that the success of the Blue Box fuels further innovation – which, in turn, will help make the program even more successful.”

Ironically, many of the same companies that are members of Stewardship Ontario are also members of the U.S-based Grocery Manufacturers Alliance (GMA), which hired the consulting firm SAIC to issue a report last month that criticized the Blue Box EPR program as inefficient and ineffective. Go figure.

The last speaker on my panel, Meegan Armstrong of the British Columbia Ministry of the Environment, touted the province’s commitment to manage, by 2017, all products under an EPR system that promotes private sector initiative and innovation.

As if that three-speaker session was not enough of a contrast with the U.S., next, I spoke on a panel at the Scottish Waste and Resources Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, where my fellow panelists and I discussed the interplay between voluntary and regulatory solutions.

Oct. 3, 2012 — Scott Cassel speaks in Glasgow, Scotland about PSI’s experience forging agreements between stakeholders for both voluntary and regulatory product stewardship programs.

The Scottish government has just introduced packaging regulations that are more aggressive than the existing packaging law in place in the U.K., of which Scotland is a part. However, Zero Waste Scotland, an independent organization funded by the Scottish government, is tasked with implementing the packaging law through both EPR and voluntary solutions. The recycling rate in the U.K. far exceeds that of the U.S., but—to Scotland—that rate is unacceptably low. They want to do more.

America, we have a problem. If our corporations continue to refuse even to have the discussion with other U.S.-based stakeholders about how we are to reduce waste, save taxpayers money, create recycling jobs, and achieve our joint objectives by both voluntary and regulated solutions, then we will have no one to blame but ourselves for wasting economic opportunities.

As Americans, we should be leading in the creation of innovative waste management solutions, as we do in other areas of the economy, rather than burying our future in the rubble of our own fear.

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Recycling Jobs: Who Really Cares?

For once, there was good news about jobs. Real American jobs.

The front page headline of The Boston Globe’s business section on April 16 read: “Recycling industry poised for hiring.” The article highlighted the recent report by the Environmental Business Council, MassRecycle, and SkillWorks (a nonprofit that funds workforce initiatives) that predicts the growth of over 1,200 recycling jobs in Massachusetts in the private sector alone. This growth would be added to the 14,000 current recycling jobs in 2,000 Massachusetts companies with a payroll approaching $500 million annually.

Wow! Such great news. Finally, business, government, and environmental groups should be swinging arm in arm, humming This Land is Your Land.

Let’s take it a step further. Extended producer responsibility (EPR) laws create recycling jobs by signaling to investors that the supply of recycled materials will be available. In the first year of E-Cycle programs in Washington and Oregon, three new processing and recycling facilities opened. Implementation of their E-Cycle programs resulted in electronics collection and processing job growth of 64%, supporting 360 jobs or 12.6 jobs per 1,000 tons of electronics processed, well above the less than 1 job per 1,000 tons from traditional disposal. Collection rates rose to 38.5 million pounds in Washington and 19 million pounds in Oregon.

Since EPR laws increase material supply and recycling, businesses should be loving EPR too, right?

Then why would the Hartford Business Journal equate the 2012 Connecticut mattress EPR bill as bad for business? About EPR, the Journal says: “If you think about the logical extensions of that doctrine, the world as we know it ends.” They are not being kind. Of course those of us working on EPR know that the world as we know it must change. We cannot continue to waste resources and place the burden on government and taxpayers.

But the Journal shows how different many in the business community view EPR. They acknowledge the problem that mattresses cannot be disposed of in landfills and incinerators, and that it costs a great deal to manage them properly. And they acknowledge that the bill would create jobs, citing companies ready to set up shop in the state, the way that a paint recycler immediately announced plans to come to the state after Connecticut passed its 2011 paint EPR law.

But they object to businesses being held responsible for resolving the problem. “Somewhere the responsibility of the individual user has been lost in a nanny-state fantasy that business is responsible for all ills…Isn’t this exactly the kind of big-picture societal problem that governments are supposed to solve?”

I want to thank the Journal for framing these questions. I really mean it. We now know where to start the discussion. Government is definitely not equipped to handle product waste by itself, despite their extensive expertise in waste management and recycling. Pure and simple – they do not have the funds. And it is not fair to ask all taxpayers to pay for the consumption of others.

EPR systems require that state and local governments, manufacturers, retailers, and consumers all play a role in the responsible management of products and the materials of which they are made. And, yes, individuals who buy the products should pay for their recycling or disposal, and producers should make it easy for those consumers by incorporating these costs into the product purchase price. Until the full cost of managing products is internalized, we will continue to have a nanny-state where government picks up the cost to dispose of products.

But why do businesses so vehemently resist the changes that many agree need to be made? What responsibility does the business community have in reducing environmental impacts and reducing government waste management costs that result in higher taxes?

On the other side, what is the extent of government’s reach? What added costs do governments impose because they are involved in ways that they should not be?

We all want jobs. We want a clean environment and a reasonable quality of life. Then why is it so hard to take responsibility for changes needed to bring about these outcomes? Are we just too darn stubborn to consider a change to our current situation, no matter how much better we have the power to make it? I really think that this is most of the challenge.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Photo Essay from a PSI Tour of a Materials Recovery Facility

Last week a team from the Product Stewardship Institute took a tour of a materials recovery facility (MRF; pronounced “murph”) operated by Casella Waste Systems in Charlestown, Massachusetts, which recycles material from municipalities in the Boston area.  We would like to thank Lisa McMenemy, the Municipal Development Representative at Casella, for being such an informative tour guide and leading us through all the steps of the recycling process.  The Charlestown MRF was converted to a single-stream (also known as Zero-Sort or fully-comingled) facility in 2009.  The concept of single stream comes from Europe and is widely believed to dramatically increase the recycling rate because of the added convenience for consumers, although the quality of the materials recovered is lower.  Single-stream allows for recyclable materials (such as cardboard, newspaper, aluminum cans, plastic bottles, and glass containers) to all be placed in the same bin. When we are so accustomed to ease of curbside collection and other convenient methods of recycling, it’s hard to imagine how complex process actually is.

The single-stream MRF that PSI visited was highly automated and use cutting edge technology in order to separate materials.  The Charlestown MRF recycles around 750 tons of material every day and the most common material that is recycled is newspaper, which accounts for 60% of all the materials that are processed at the Charlestown site.  The inflows of recyclable materials are highly seasonal, with some of the largest fluctuations coinciding around the holiday season and also university events such as graduations and moving days.

The first step in the recycling process is taken when trucks deliver loads of recyclable material to the MRF.  The materials are dumped in large piles, which are then pushed onto conveyer belts by bobcats (also known as skid steers).  Metering chains make sure that the materials are not stacked too high and will not encumber the sorting processs.

With all the materials spread out along the conveyer belt, the pre-sorting begins.  The pre-sort is a labor-intensive step where materials that are not recyclable, or that may damage the equipment, are removed by hand.  Plastic bags are by far the biggest contaminant in the recycling process, and are not able to be recycled once they get to the MRF.  It is important to remember that even if you have good intentions and wish to recycle your grocery bags, the bags can slip through the pre-sort and end up in bales of other material. If a bale reaches a certain level of contamination, it can be rejected by a mill and must then be reprocessed, which requires additional energy, recycling time, and money.  Everyone should reuse plastic bags as much as possible, and consider purchasing a durable canvas bag for shopping needs.  If you want to recycle the plastic bags accumulating in your household, bring them to a store that collects them and don’t put them in your recycling bin or they willbecome a contaminant.  There are national retailers offering collection programs across the country.  Lowe’s and Target both offer complimentary recycling stations for plastic bags and you should be sure to check with you local grocer or retailer to see if they offer similar services as well.

With the pre-sort complete, a series of screens then separates out light paper products, such as newspaper, from heavier products that will fall through the screens and move onto a further series of conveyer belts.  The smallest objects, typically broken glass and shredded bits of paper, falls through the screen and sent to a belt beneath the entire system of screens, while the plastics and metals continue on.

Next, magnetic fields are used to force metal cans from the main conveyer belt.  A magnetic current is calibrated so that steal and tin products are separated into one bunker, and a reverse magnetic field is used to so aluminum products are separated into another bunker.

Now that paper and metals have been removed from the conveyer belt, plastics are further separated by their physical properties.  An optical sorter separates clear plastics, such as soda bottles, from opaque plastics, such as milk jugs.  When the optical sorter identifies a material as a certain type of plastic, different forces of compressed air are shot at the conveyer belt and are adjusted to propel separate types of plastics into separate containers.

Once all the materials are sorted they are separated into bales that are sold to mills in order to be reprocessed into familiar products.  Just a few examples of new products created from recycled materials are plastic bottles that will be converted into carpet and fleece, tin cans that will become rebar and bike parts, and cardboard which will be reclaimed as a lower grade of paper product such as cereal boxes.  It is important to recycle as much as you can in order to create great products out of used materials, but it is important not to recycle material that may contaminate loads.  Don’t hesitate to call your local waste management service provider to determine what materials are acceptable in your area.  For those covered by Casella’s service you may visit http://www.casella.com/what-we-do/who-we-serve/town for more information.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Advertisements