Can We Close The Loop Voluntarily?

Can We Close The Loop Voluntarily?

Recently, I had the opportunity to participate in an interesting exercise, initiated by the National Recycling Coalition (NRC), designed to define “recycling.” Input was provided by participants both from within the organization and also from a variety of stakeholders with no organizational ties. Even William McDonough of “Cradle to Cradle” fame offered his views during one of the lively discussions.

For a group of industry professionals, defining what constitutes the foundation of their careers was a relatively easy task. General consensus on what recycling meant was achieved in relatively short order, if you don’t count the hundreds of actual comments and iterations. I’ll paraphrase the conclusion of those discussions down to very simplistic terms: The objective of recycling is to recover and divert a discarded material from disposal to a final disposition as feedstock in a manufacturing process. It all boiled down to pretty basic stuff with undeniable associated complexities. 

What made these exchanges stimulating was hearing the divergent perspectives on the various stages of the material recovery process. Additionally provocative was to listen to the level of acceptance or intolerance for current methods of material recovery and those proposed for the near future. 

It’s been a number of years since we’ve had any meaningful discussions at the national level on recycling-related issues. Things have remained status quo for decades, somewhat like the national rate of recovery itself – slowly creeping upward but not making any dynamic advancements. If you are in the business of collecting, handling and processing materials, including local municipal governments, you know that the game has suddenly and irreversibly changed.

Anybody who has ever had to design or comply with regulatory requirements knows that in a legal sense, words can’t always capture the full context or circumstances in which operations must function in real life. That’s why environmental law firms exist. It is also always why these debates and forums should occur more frequently. What’s right today may be the bottleneck of tomorrow.

The NRC isn’t the only organization openly airing thoughts and opinions. The National Waste & Recycling Association has become more vocal as its members venture deeper into the business of recycling. As always, the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries Inc. (ISRI) regularly offers its opinions on industry concerns.

I am hopeful that as an industry, by collectively admitting that things aren’t going as planned, we can accelerate the search for solutions. If recent debates are any example, however, the focus and criticism of proposed reactions to today’s obvious challenges may be misdirected at the wrong end of the pipeline. (Isn’t it always?)

Today’s municipal waste stream consists primarily of equal portions of food and packaging waste. It’s the packaging – pouches, cups, trays, tubs, sachets, cartons – that continues to change in size shape and content faster than you can say “evolving ton.”  Certainly faster than you can readjust an optical sorter.  

Adding to the pressure are legislated goals, standards and measurements that may not take fluctuating composition and available technology into consideration. Rarely does it acknowledge that materials are recovered at different rates.

In some cases, mandated aspirations for recovery may even exceed market demand. Further complicating things are confused consumers often misled by conflicting product and packaging labels.

In the current debates about contamination and improving material quality, there is much ridicule about processing methods. Yet proportionately, little is spoken about the major source of the residual materials, unrecyclable packaging.  

Major retailers have inadvertently, but nevertheless effectively, homogenized the national waste stream through mass distribution of the same goods in the same packaging across the United States. In today’s marketplace, products hit the shelves in Peoria on the same day as they do in El Paso. Since these products and packaging are so universal, it makes sense to establish national standards to ensure their recyclability. Many of these manufacturers already comply with similar standards in the European Union.

There is currently no legislated incentive to design packaging for recycling. Without even going as far as requiring the manufacturers to be responsible for handling the subsequent packaging waste, that one step of ensuring that the material could be captured and marketed could save local governments and recycling processors a considerable sum.

The Carton Council offers a good model. To protect the sale of products in their packaging, Council members put money into developing the technology, and then turned around and funded the purchases of equipment capable of recovering cartons for recycling in local MRFs. They also back up their partnering MRFs by helping to coordinate market outlets and educational tools for local consumers. 

The Closed Loop Fund offers to grow the recycling infrastructure, but it is uncertain if the criteria for these loans take into consideration market dynamics, logistics and regionalization. Will we be building a better network, or will we be replacing what Ron Gonen presents as a map of inefficient waste transportation across state lines with one that will now shuffle low volumes of recyclables? Based on the known problems, will these investments result in the collection of more and more materials that can’t be recycled in more locations?

I am confident that none of the Closed Loop participating companies would knowingly replicate a process throughout their own retail system that detracted from profits. I hope that they will consider those same principles and choose to support only those recycling collection and processing programs, with well thought-out business plans.

By motivating its fellow members to use some of that same Walmart ingenuity and leverage in their own packaging materials, the Closed Loop Fund could have a more significant impact in the recycling marketplace than they currently propose. Act now, voluntarily. Take the lead, build a network, and supply chain in which everybody wins. Insist on packaging designed to be recycled in a real closed loop. Then use this fund to ensure that those materials can be collected from your consumers, processed and sold in a viable market for consumption in the manufacturing of new packaging or products.  

For many, the verdict is still out on the true intentions of the Closed Loop Fund. We all know that recycling done right works to build a strong economy. Strategic use of the funding coupled with corporate initiatives to design for recycling will cast all doubts aside.

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