Sustainable Materials Management: Externalized Packaging Material Stewardship

“How can packaging become sustainable when end of life treatment is externalized to municipalities?” This was a tweet I sent out during a session on solid waste handling at the recent Sustainable Packaging Coalition spring conference in Seattle, Washington. Industry, local governments, environmental organizations, educators and citizens invest a great deal of effort and money to improve recycling rates and access to recycling services across the United States. My own organization, GreenBlue, is dedicated to sustainable materials management (SMM), which focuses on using materials wisely, eliminating toxicity, and recovering more value from the material waste stream. Yet, the solutions to comprehensive sustainable material management remain elusive, here and globally.

MRF Tipping Floor

The embodiment of the SMM principles are witnessed in Greenblue’s Sustainable Packaging Coalition and its annual spring conference. Day two of the conference focused heavily on material recovery from the municipal solid waste (MSW) stream, a solid 30 percent of which is made up of discarded packaging, or over 75 million tons annually. For the most part, the conversation revolves around innovations at the front end for design and performance, and challenges at the back end for material collecting, sorting, recycling, and creating secondary markets. The missing piece (perhaps the most critical piece from the lens of sustainable materials management) is the stuff in between innovation and recovery. Here lies the notion of an externality, a cost or benefit that affects a party who did not choose to incur that cost or benefit – in this case, society.

In the case of packaging and product innovation, post-use recovery and eventual recycling is considered only after traditional design constraints of cost, performance, aesthetics, and regulations are met. For the most part, post-use recovery costs are externalized to society; in particular, to local municipalities that bear the burden of solid waste management – collecting, sorting, recovering, recycling, and proper discarding. This externalized approach allows industry to reap the benefit of continuous innovations for materials and processes that go into further innovations for product and package development. The benefits to consumers are obvious, new and improved products with ever-increasing performance and cost parity. Meanwhile, at the end of life, these innovative materials are sent to poorly funded recovery systems where infrastructure is made up of expensive long-term capital investments that lock the system’s performance to a point in time, eliminating the flexibility needed to adapt to rapid frontend innovation. This cost – the sum value of the externality and the capital expense – resides either in private enterprises that provide independent waste handling services to communities and citizens, or with municipalities that do the same for its citizenry.

plastic bales at MRF

Rapid innovation coupled with capital limitations in the recovery phase result in near flatline recovery of many commodity materials such as aluminum and poor recovery of plastics, as well as understandably poor secondary market development in the case of plastics. Of course, there are regional exceptions to these statements, but overall the country discarded large fractions of packaging materials: 62 percent of aluminum, 66 percent of glass, 86 percent of plastics and 75 percent of wood. The big exceptions are paper/board and steel, both recovered at over 70 percent. These discarded materials represent a whopping 28 billion megajoules of embodied energy equivalents, enough energy equivalent to power over 750,000 average U.S. homes for a year. Or enough petrol equivalent to drive over 425,000 cars 12,000 miles each for a year. If we take the retail value of the petrol that would come to about 688 million dollars.  You get the idea.

So we come to it again: How can packaging become sustainable when end of life treatment is externalized to municipalities? This is a critical activity in the value chain of sustainable materials management, yet this is also where limited public dollars compete with many alternate uses that also benefit society. Nationwide, investment to solid waste treatment has historically been slow and inconsistent. What role can industry play? Is it enough to show that front end innovation is helping to improve product loss, increase shelf stability thus extending product life, and other improvements in performance attributes? What is industry’s social obligation in terms of license to operate and material stewardship?

There are various options that are being employed worldwide, and some in the U.S. Though none are being employed consistently, and none are designed to shift the burden in the direction of the producers to balance out the material stewardship responsibility of front end innovation with the cost to municipalities at end of life. Industry support for extended producer responsibility (EPR), a policy mechanism that places the burden of material stewardship on the producer of the good, has wavered in the United States. And no alternative mechanism has been put forth. Consensus among industry and environmental non-profits has not been reached. The idea is to apply the monetary value of the EPR fee to recovery infrastructures to increase access to recycling services. Ultimately, the material stewardship cost may be passed to the citizen through increased product price. These policy instruments are used successfully in Europe, Canada and parts of Asia, and have some demonstrated success for a variety of common, high-use items such as car batteries, tires, and consumer electronics in the U.S.

My intention is not to push one solution over another, but to challenge industry to come together with policy makers and solid waste processors to come to a creative resolution to an ongoing problem that plagues the industry’s stewardship record. As a significant consumer of technical materials and raw resources, it behooves the packaging community as a whole to resolve the end of life complexities that tarnish the important role packaging plays in modern societies.

In a recent article titled Why Corporations Fail to Do the Right Thing in the Atlantic, author Christine Bader argues that one reason this sort of conundrum may not get adequately addressed is that “No one knows what corporate responsibility is” so everyone defines it to fit their own need. Yet, serving one’s own need does not produce the greater societal or environmental need that benefits us generally. This doesn’t mean we need to abandon doing business to be profitable. True leadership requires stepping out in front of peers, and where possible, bringing along collaborators to move beyond complacency and inefficiencies to envisioning the way things can be. Operating under 20th century paradigms of material consumption is no longer a sustainable premise. Packaging is ripe for a cross societal approach that puts aside the self-interest driven differences among actors – product producers, citizenry, policy makers, academia, and waste processors – and focuses on the common thread of working in harmony to sustain the material economy in the future. A daunting task, yet we did manage to travel to the Moon and back, so this should be an entirely solvable conundrum… soon?

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