Though California has one of the highest recycling rates in the nation, America generates more waste than any other country in the world and recycles less. The severity of this issue drives one of the pet projects of As You Sow, a corporate social responsibility (CSR) business. Founded in 1992, As You Sow has become an instigator of of corporate environmental responsibility, leading measurable change in the beverage packaging sector. As You Sow’s vision holds that shareholders are “the single most powerful force for creating positive, lasting changes in corporate behavior.” Thus, they make proposals directly to shareholders, and issue an annual report card that rates companies on their recycling and sustainability efforts. Their efforts have had a positive impact on sustainability efforts of the three biggest beverage companies, Coca Cola, Nestlé Waters, and Pepsi, since 2006.
Conrad MacKerron, Senior Vice President of As You Sow, runs the outreach initiative on recycling and waste issues. He initiated the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) effort, he tells GOOD, “Because I was concerned about poor bottle and can recycling rates in the U.S.” The goal of EPRs, he says, is to “shift the funding of recycling from taxpayer to companies. All of us pay for recycling and garbage as citizens in the US.” He doesn’t feel that leaving the financial burden with the individual is the best way to improve recycling rates.
EPR has been successful in other industries, such as consumer electronics, and batteries—where consumers can return these to drop-off stations and then manufacturers handle recycling or reusing the materials—but the idea is relatively new to the bottle and packaging industries. As You Sow joined forces with the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) to grade the packaging practices of 47 companies including fast food chains, beverage companies and consumer goods and grocery companies in their 2015 Waste and Opportunity Report based on “four pillars” or practices:
- Source Reduction: Switch to reusable packaging, or packaging with less material to reduce virgin content.
- Recycled Content: Use recycled content to make new products, which helps create a market for recycled materials and requires far fewer resources.
- Recyclability and Materials Use: Materials that are very difficult to recycle, like flexible laminate pouches, should be avoided.
- Boosting Materials Recycling: Other materials are recycled but only at low rates because of lack of bins, infrastructure, end markets, or public education. Companies have failed to do enough to ensure their packaging is actually recycled.
“Since many companies are focused on climate change and reducing their carbon footprint, issues of waste often get kicked down to the back burner,” MacKerron says. This, he feels, is a mistake, considering that managing the packaging side of solid waste better can lead to reduction in the total carbon footprint. “Coke has done research showing that packaging can be up to 50 percent of a company’s total footprint.”
When the EPR program was first broached with the big beverage companies in 2006 after their first report card grades came back low, MacKerron says he was soon impressed with Nestlé Waters’ turnaround and commitment to bringing up PET beverage container recycling rates when other companies still balked at making changes. “We educated over 60 companies for whom recycling wasn’t even on their radar,” says MacKerron. “In most cases we were the first group who had asked ‘What is your policy on your responsibility for recycling your packaging?’ and ‘What would you pay to help recycle your products?’ In October of 2008, Nestlé Waters became the first beverage company to commit to an industry-wide bottle recovery goal. As You Sow recognized the company for its commitment to help improve recycling rates to 60 percent for PET plastic beverage bottles by 2018.
As You Sow now has its sights set on companies that produce non-beverage packaging, such as Proctor and Gamble, and is putting special pressure on those that produce flexible plastic pouch packaging, which combine thin aluminum and polyethylene plastic for longer shelf life, such as Kraft’s Capri Suns. “There’s no end-of-life solution for them,” says MacKerron. “They can’t be recycled anywhere, so they’re all tossed into landfill. We’ve gone to these companies saying we want them to work on making these recyclable.”
The beverage companies are in the best position to increase recycling rates since the PET (#1) plastic used by most of them is highly recyclable, and less likely to become contaminated when only used as beverage containers (compared to say, motor oil or peanut butter containers, which also use PET). The more consumers recycle their containers, the more material is available to keep the closed loop system of bottle-to-bottle recycling going. Recycled PET (rPET), however, is so popular that the carpet and textile industries also use it for making their products, which can reduce the available amount of rPET on the market. “I don’t think it’s a good idea for rPET beverage bottles to be used in carpets; take something dirtier and keep the bottles in a closed loop,” says MacKerron. “Maybe you get one more life out of it as a carpet, but you might get 50 more uses in a bottle to bottle loop.”
MacKerron sees small waves of change on the horizon and remains optimistic that with these three big beverage companies leading the way, other brands, in other sectors, will soon feel more than just the heat of climate change, and get on board to improve their practices.