How Extended Producer Responsibility Could Revolutionize Recycling

This is a guest post from Tom Szaky, co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of TerraCycle, which provides free waste collection, and then turns that waste into sustainable products.

Widely quoted estimates suggest that 90% of the ‘stuff’ we buy is discarded within 6 months of purchase. What’s worse is that 10% of this “stuff” ends up going to some type of waste-to-energy facility, while the remaining 90% of America’s waste ends up in a landfill.

With over 360 million Americans and counting producing on average about 4 pounds of waste a day, it is clear that our recycling systems need to be expanded to accept a wider range of materials, and fast. Worse yet, even commonly recyclable packaging formats such as PET and HDPE plastic bottles are only recycled at an estimated (and paltry) 25%.

Examining the Chip Bag

Let’s look at one common “non-recyclable” waste stream, chip bags, which can be found in every pantry, deli, food store, and cafeteria nationwide. Over 17 billion chip bags are produced annually in the US, and since chip bags are not municipally recyclable, you can guess where they all end up. This loss of energy and resources is staggering, and yet tossing away a snack wrapper comes naturally to us.

Unfortunately this cradle-to-grave system is standard. Many consumer-packaged goods are still contained within non-recyclable packaging types, like flexible films, high numbered plastics etc. These hybrid-packaging forms, such as the plastic and aluminum fused together to make chip bags, are difficult and expensive to recycle, ergo, ignored by municipal recycling.

To combat this loss of resources, TerraCycle creates free systems for consumers to recycle these various “non-recyclable” waste streams, including chip bags. These collection programs are akin to privatized “Bottle Bills” for a variety of materials traditionally difficult to recycle, and recycles them on a national level. However, even with TerraCycle diverting tens of millions of chip bags from landfill annually, billions of non-recycled chip bags end up in landfill every year.

Chip in for Change

So I challenged my team at TerraCycle with a simple, but monumental question. Can we grow the recycling rate of chip bags to that of municipally recycled plastic bottles? It took 40 years to get to the 25% recycling rate of plastic bottles, but is it possible for a small private company to grow recycling rates to the same level in less than 4 years?

For the challenge, TerraCycle launched a new program called “Chip in for Change,” with the ambitious goal of getting a local township here in NJ up to 30% recycling of chip bags within 4 months. This program was launched on July 11, 2012 in Hamilton, New Jersey and will run through October. With success, Hamilton will serve as a pilot for nationwide scale-up opportunities.

To start this program, “Chip in for Change” collection boxes have been placed over 200 different locations throughout the township, in an attempt to get residents to recycle at least ten percent of the chip bags they consume. However, if everyone “chips in”, I believe we together can reach a thirty percent recycling rate of chip bags.

AnneCN/CC BY 2.0

A growing effort to promote resource conservation, known as “extended producer responsibility,” or EPR, makes the manufacturer of a product responsible for the entire lifecycle of the product and its packaging, including financing the take-back, recycling, or final disposal of the product. The goal of EPR is for companies to design products that are easily reused and/or recycled at the end of a products lifespan.

By the end of 2010, EPR laws were enacted in 33 US states for a total of 72 laws, in varying degree, enforcing producer responsibility. Packaging taxes – the coercive arm of EPR efforts – are far more common outside the US, with well established packaging taxes in Canada, Brasil, the UK and all EU countries to name just a few.

TerraCycle makes EPR possible by eliminating the idea of waste. Major corporations are becoming more likely to finance the recycling of their previously non-recyclable products and packaging, whether in preparation for looming EPR laws or to quell rising shareholder and consumer demands is irrelevant. Importantly, it is the consumers that are voluntarily engaging in transformative change.

TerraCycle is hoping that our Chip in for Change pilot in Hamilton Township, NJ will prove that private enterprise can bring forth higher recycling rates faster than any new laws or taxes. Ideally, with the citizens of Hamilton township, we can demonstrate the importance of and value in EPR as citizens seek to close the loop.

Tags: Corporate Responsibility | Recycling | Reusability | Zero Waste

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