Some years ago I had a sit-down with the then head of California’s Division of Recycling that, at the time, set the state’s redemption rates for the different kinds of bottle returns.
Being a numbers kind of guy who fervently believed recycling’s economics had to align with its noble ambitions, I had asked for the meeting to push for dramatically higher fees to redeem polyvinyl chloride (PVC) bottles nine times greater than for the others. This was to reflect the fact that separating the polyethylene terephthalate (PET) look-alikes imposed grossly disproportionate costs on recyclers and, to boot, used dangerous chemicals in their production.
Having had long practice in lobbying agencies, I had first corralled key staffers to corroborate that my calculations of PVC’s proper cost responsibility was correct, which left just the political question of whether to take on the powerful vinyl industry.
Over lunch with one, we exchanged the usual pleasantries, and I next proceeded, as deliberatively as I was naive, to make the factual case that the undisputed facts compelled the higher fee.
He stared briefly at the ceiling and then brusquely pushed back the papers on which my calculations were laboriously laid out, looked me in the eye, and replied, “your arithmetic may well be right, Peter, but not your politics. If I were to do that today, the governor would fire me tomorrow.” And that was a Democratic governor.
I mention this because today a battle royal rages between two wings of the modern recycling movement.
Historically, the scrap dealers before us focused, laser like, on the quarter cent a pound that separates profit from loss in a low-margin business, without any of this environmental falderal so prevalent nowadays.
In contrast, today’s recyclers, who either came of age or were born after the first Earth Day, have been all over sustainability till the cows come home, almost as if it’s beneath contempt whether or not the latest cause de jour has anything to do with making money.
So it is not surprising that, with 17 times or more energy now understood to be spent on the production of the package than the remains in the container walls, all modern recyclers champion designing packaging for not just recyclability, but global sustainability. And that is why a near cult following has grown around the belief that the application of extended producer responsibility (EPR) would force manufacturers to roll up their sleeves and cull their hard to recycle designs.
Right at the top, the theory of how this would come to be was impeccable. By making producers responsible for managing their discarded packaging, they would be incentivized to redesign them to be easier to recover. On paper, it makes splendid sense, and, if it worked in real life, EPR would, I am quite certain, have attracted support across the recycling movement, including, reluctantly perhaps, those whose organizations may have been swept aside in the restructuring of recovery systems.
And, in several select cases, EPR has had great successes for which it deserves credit, including for several hazardous materials, like batteries and medicines, as well as for e-wastes and certain large or bulky items, like carpets.
However, we all have had a front row seat to watch as things unfurled in real time as British Columbia has, over the past 10 years, been implementing an EPR program for the big enchilada where the volumes are found, packaging and printed paper. When the rubber hit the road, however, and the pesky details had to be figured out to make it work for these broader sectors, the theory became increasingly disengaged from real world practicalities.
For one thing, overall management of the recovery system had to be handed over to producer councils in order to make them responsible. Those councils, in turn, quickly became dominated by the largest national brand companies, without any counterbalancing public voice, because they were the only ones with the resources to staff the councils.
Moreover, since these firms’ bottom lines were far more often improved by bottle designs that are eyeball-catching for consumers, but teeth-rattling for recyclers – think PETG sleeves – an internal contradiction to the original intent was baked in from the outset. Also, national companies, being national companies, prefer to deal with one national collection servicing company, not lots of little local ones that make up the bedrock of the best recycling efforts America has to offer. Not that brand executives are in any way bad folk, but, in a market economy, publicly traded companies answer to their stockholders who demand the fast buck, or the current crop of execs will be tossed out the door.
For another, hope sprung eternal that profit-motivated producers could nonetheless be induced to see the business value of societal goods – first, by imposing performance criteria for recovery rates that would force them to change their aberrant ways.
Unfortunately, even where data is available on each product’s sales in the jurisdiction and there are no significant cross-border sales or collection or returns, those goals can still only be enforced by recycle composition studies. Otherwise, in the more common case, waste composition analyses will be required.
Now, in addition to having run the EPA multi-state design-for-recycling program in the 1990s, where I worked closely with the brand companies, I have also done close to 20 waste composition studies. It’s not my most favorite task, but it does help pay the bills.
Because of the extremely wide heterogeneity of the discard stream, even when done well with statistical rigor, the narrowest band of uncertainty around the results for all plastic bottles by resin, such as high-density polyethylene (HDPE) or PET bottles, will be plus or minus 20 percent at the 95-percent confidence level.
That means that you do not know where within 40 percentage points the true answer could lie, which is a lousy result when you’re trying to prove with clear and convincing evidence whether the performance objectives were not met.
Worse, these EPR performance requirements will have to drill down to specific brands, including brands with small market shares and private labels, which are sub-sub-units of HDPE or PET bottles. The way statistics work, the number of samples needed to achieve the same confidence band rises exponentially as the proportionate size of the sampled units decrease.
Ditto, as to the costs. There isn’t enough gold in Fort Knox to do the required studies the right way, without which you’re stuck in the never-never world of creative accounting that flowered for California’s cities to gin up ersatz compliance with the first 5-percent recycle rate requirements in 1989, AB 939.
Second, the other EPR strategy to steer the profit motive to sustainability goals is to impose fees on producers in proportion to the number of bottles sold. But in practice, recyclers’ haven’t had the moxie to impose fees greater than just the net cost to collect and process the separated recyclables.
On a per bottle basis, unfortunately, that cost to producers was too small relative to the value-added of the product in the bottle to create a financial incentive to forego eyeball-catching designs that are impossible to separate.
Does all this mean that there is no hope for change? Not at all. When I ran that multi-state redesign program nearly two decades ago, I first sat myself down as a young acolyte at the feet of legendary Procter & Gamble recycling executive, Tom Rattray, to imbibe everything that he knew about what corporations really respond to.
What focuses the mind of CEOs like nothing other, Tom taught me, was the fear of product bans, like the dozens of bills in that era to ban PVC containers, which actually did lead most major brands to convert to PET. Even those giant gallon Windex jugs that were so large they needed handles to hold – something that only PVC but not PET could be molded to form – eventually converted as well. SC Johnson didn’t stop selling Windex but instead told molders in no uncertain terms to figure something else out, which is how those Gripper PET bottles came about. Even those teeny PVC liners inside the caps on PET bottles to make a better seal were replaced with another compatible resin called EVOH (ethylene vinyl alcohol).
When the incentives are really right, as they were in the early 90s when product makers rightly perceived that those proposed package bans could pass if industry didn’t respond constructively, there’s almost nothing that packaging engineers can’t do.
But, that only comes together when the recycling movement has the political clout to make it very clear that it will pursue, and can pass, bans of new hard-to-recycle bottles unless redesigns are found to resolve the impediment to economic recycling.
Once memories faded of the Mobro Garbage Barge’s Flying Dutchman-like journey, recyclers’ political muscle sputtered. That loss of political power explains our later inability to force needed redesigns when, for example, plastic beer bottles came along. The core of our problem never was about the choice between EPR and traditional municipally run (or franchised) programs. Neither is central to getting the kind of designs we need.
The tragic thing is that if this gets personal, then the more recyclers fight amongst ourselves over something as collateral to our common goal as is producer versus community-run programs, the less likely we will ever recover our mojo. That’s what those practical old scrappers would have said, “This ain’t personal, it’s just bidiness.”
Here come old flattop, he come grooving up slowly
He got joo-joo eyeball, he one holy roller
He got hair down to his knee
Got to be a joker he just do what he please
Come together right now over [us]
— John Lennon and Paul McCartney.