How to spur innovation in recycling

January 30, 2014

3 Min Read
How to spur innovation in recycling

At the SPC's annual spring meeting last month, it was evident that the discussion of sustainable packaging has expanded its focus to the post-consumer side of the supply chain. The first day of the meeting focused on end-of-life issues, reflecting the coalition's evolution from an emphasis on packaging design toward a greater recognition that the current U.S. recycling system and lack of sorting technology is a barrier to the effective recovery of many types of packaging materials and to developing more sustainable packaging systems.

One message was clear from the discussions on recovery: There is little incentive to invest in collecting and processing new materials unless there are existing end markets for those materials. Many pointed out that this situation presents a significant roadblock to new material introductions and may stifle material innovation.

A fiscally responsible recycling business isn't going to invest in new technologies if there is not a reasonable opportunity of recouping its investment and making a profit. In contrast, in most communities, we use tax dollars to pay for the management of packaging waste with no expectation of a return on the investment of these dollars beyond the service received. Local governments are providers of these services, and taxpayers resent having to pay for them, especially as costs rise. The incentive for local government is to keep the cost for these services as low as possible.

Diverting materials from landfills toward recycling therefore presents a chicken-and-egg dilemma. Who moves first to shift the economic inertia of a taxpayer-subsidized landfill system to a market-based recycling system?

Until recently, recycling in the U.K. looked a lot like the current situation in the U.S. While packaging recycling there has improved steadily since 1998, recycling and technology innovation has increased over the past five years there, especially in mixed plastics recycling, thanks to committed action on the part of U.K. retailers. Several things have contributed to this rapid advance: The U.K.'s national landfill directive, action on the part of retailers in 2005 through the Courtauld Commitment, and research and technical support from a publicly funded, non-governmental organization called WRAP. Through the Commitment, which WRAP helped craft, many U.K. retailers committed to design out packaging waste growth by 2008, to deliver absolute reductions in packaging waste by 2010 and to help reduce the amount of discarded food from households by 155,000 tons by 2010. Retailers such as Marks & Spencer committed to use recovered materials and guarantee a price for them–creating a market for recovered material and stimulating investment on the part of recyclers.

This action created the impetus needed to move the system forward. It remains to be seen if there will be a similar commitment or actions in the U.S. If not, we'll likely sit and wait for the cost of landfilling and energy to rise until it forces states and local governments to take action.

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