It is my belief that we have significant opportunities to improve both the quantity and quality of recycled materials. To help the industry take action and ensure our materials are actually used as feedstock by manufacturers, we can focus on four distinct areas.
These focus areas are as follows: provide quality access to recycling, motivate consumers to actually participate in programs, push forward recyclable package design, and bolster markets from material.
The Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC) has championed the use of our How2Recycle label to help consumers engage with recycling and recycle correctly. We now have the opportunity to use the label to drive a balanced recyclability assessment protocol and drive design for recyclability.
This in combination with complementary industry initiatives will help to create a viable supply chain for manufacturing.
Moving forward on access
The SPC’s recently released the 2015-16 Centralized Study on Availability of Recycling, a groundbreaking step forward for the recycling industry. The study, which was the collective effort of 13 packaging trade associations and recycling-focused nonprofit groups, examined more than 2,000 American recycling programs and determined the acceptance of 49 types of packaging.
In addition to understanding the access to recycling for specific products, the study also looked at the quality of access and provided important quantitative support for the claims made through the How2Recycle program.
Important findings include a new understanding of what good access looks like. Today, 93 percent of Americans have some type of access to recycling, but only 53 percent have great access, defined as automatic access to curbside recycling. Another interesting finding came from sorting through the widely varied information provided by 2,000 communities about recycling: The opportunity to harmonize and clarify recycling instructions could have a big impact on consumer engagement in recycling.
The How2Recycle label is also aiming to move the needle on the product design front.
The How2Recycle label notes when an item is “widely recycled,” and in order for a product label to carry that claim, 60 percent of consumers must have access to recycling for the package in question.
But not all packages are created equal, and the How2Recycle program is addressing that point. SPC has partnered with the Association of Plastic Recyclers to help the industry understand what makes a package recoverable. A package has to be able to be sorted in a materials recovery facility (MRF) and then must be reprocessed. A package that has access but includes aspects that are detrimental to sortation or reprocessing will not be able to receive How2Recycle’s “widely recycled” designation.
Aspirations versus commitments
Finally, there is the issue of markets. To create a viable supply chain, markets need to be developed and encouraged for major materials. In a 2016 Packaging Digest/SPC survey on areas of specific company goals, increasing the recyclability of packaging and using post-consumer recycled content were two of the top three areas of corporate focus.
But those stated aspirations contrast sharply with actual industry commitments. The SPC looked at sustainability goals across 156 companies in 2016 and found very weak commitments in the areas of recycled content and recyclable packaging. Companies surveyed included material manufacturers, converters, brand owners and retailers. One of the explanations often cited for weak commitments was the uncertainty of supply.
There are many areas where we see opportunity for change and improvement. It’s time to create a collective focus on these four areas to help create a sustainable supply chain from product creation to final disposal.
Nina Goodrich is the executive director of GreenBlue and director of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition. She can be contacted at [email protected].
The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not imply endorsement by Resource Recycling, Inc. If you have a subject you wish to cover in a future Op-Ed, please send a short proposal to [email protected] for consideration.