Consumers care about recycling. In a survey conducted for Packaging Digest’s 2015 Sustainable Packaging Study, 57% of participants cite a product’s recyclability to be top of mind when it comes to the environment and sustainability, a product featuring recycled content and reduced packaging coming up for second and third place. The majority of consumers see recyclability as the most important factor in choosing sustainable products, and it is consumers that ultimately drive company behavior.
However, the recyclability of a waste output depends on the degree of access the average consumer has to its solution; the solution to which the average consumer has the most access is their local recycling facility. Only if it can profit from the processing and selling of the materials will a local recycling facility collect a waste stream, which occurs if the collection and processing of said items costs less than what they can be sold for. Thus, most products and packaging are considered non-recyclable in the current municipal infrastructure due to economics.
Companies seek to address consumer concerns and market trends by working to make their products municipally recyclable, and one of the methods companies use to do so is to create or join an industry coalition. An industry coalition is a pact among firms in a market for a common interest. In this method, companies form an alliance to work with recyclers to accept their materials. Like a sort of lobbyist group, an industry coalition aims to influence decisions about the processes that affect their special interest, which in this case the municipal recyclability of the companies’ products and packaging.
Industry coalitions working with municipal recycling can work, but only in two circumstances. The first is when the material is inherently valuable, but falls outside the waste management infrastructure. In most cases, municipal recycling facilities (MRFs) already recycle these waste streams, and the collecting and processing the material is less than the value of the recovered material, making it profitable for MRFs to recycle the product.
Take the Carton Council of North America. In 2009, milk, soup, and juice cartons made from paper, plastic, and sometimes aluminum were only municipally recyclable for 18% of Americans due to the mixed nature of the carton materials. To divert cartons from landfills by way of making them municipally recyclable, members Elopack, Evergreen, SIG Combibloc and Tetrapak came together in 2009 to form the Carton Council, enlisting the help of recycling and logistics experts, building processing infrastructure, developing end of life markets, and promoting consumer awareness through partnerships with schools. By 2015, 57% of American households could recycle cartons, either through single stream recycling or grouped with plastics, metals, and glass.
One of the main reasons for the success of the Carton Council is that recycling cartons for their component materials is inherently cost effective for the high quality fiber, polyethylene and aluminum recovered from the recycling process; cartons have now received their own material grades. Consumer perception of Carton Council manufacturers also had a positive impact on the effectiveness of the initiative, which was aided by a public willingness to capture materials for processing.
The second scenario in which industry coalitions working with MRFs succeed is when legislation drives change through mandated guide, like the ban of plastic bag use in San Francisco in 2007; consumers were charged 10 cents per bag, creating cost incentives to use reusable bags, and other municipalities followed suit. Today, 36 states in the U.S. have now enacted legislation regarding the use and disposal of film plastic bags, and 91 and 93% of U.S. population has access to plastic bag recycling through curbside or nearby collection programs.
Instead of and in combination with industry coalitions and changing material composition (which allows companies to use existing recycling infrastructure, but at high cost), companies can also work outside the currently inefficient municipal recycling infrastructure, and develop their own. My company TerraCycle works with companies like Colgate and Febreze that aim to solve for their product and packaging waste and make what was previously unrecyclable nationally recyclable through sponsored recycling programs.
Infrastructure changes at the private and municipal level are not without cost, nor are they without challenges. But companies willing to pay a premium to take responsibility for their waste pay for the collection and processing of their materials so that they can be sold as a marketable resource. When companies streamline the recycling process by developing end of life solutions for things like used toothbrushes and empty air fresheners, as well as new recycling techniques and technologies, their waste can become profitable to recycle.
Industry coalitions can solve for waste while working within current recycling infrastructure, but finding new solutions that move us towards a more comprehensive, regenerative system provides companies and municipalities more room for the innovation of new waste management technologies. There are clearly solutions for difficult-to-recycle waste streams when companies provide the resources necessary to make them possible, and consumers have the influence to reward those companies with their wallets.