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Packaging recycling: Everything is not okay

Packaging recycling: Everything is not okay
Scott Mouw, state recycling program director, North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources

Bob Lilienfeld’s recent rosy Earth Day article would have us sit firmly on the statistical laurels of packaging reduction and recovery. We’re done, wipe off your hands, let’s go home. But everything is not okay with packaging recycling and disposal.

Should we applaud the progress made in the last 20 years? Absolutely. We have built a foundation for packaging recovery in the U.S. that diverts millions of tons of commodity material from disposal back into productive use. Source reduction, lightweighting and other packaging design changes have indeed reduced the waste burden of these materials.

But using the same statistical source as Mr. Lilienfeld, we find that 36.48 million tons of packaging are still entombed in U.S. landfills each year, along with all of the embedded energy therein. That figure includes 5.68 million tons of recyclable PET, HDPE and PP packaging, 1.33 million tons of metal containers, 6.18 million tons of glass bottles and jars, and 6.42 million tons of paper containers and packaging. It also includes currently unrecyclable packaging and emerging packaging formats whose only practical option at this point is a trash can. For most common household recyclables profiled in the EPA data, recycling rates are hovering around 30 percent or lower. Are we ready to call that success?

A few years back, it looked like the U.S. packaging industry was ready to take on recycling issues with aggressive action. But since then, with some notable exceptions in the Carton Council, Foodservice Packaging Institute and funders of the Recycling Partnership, key industry associations have abandoned work on the critical needs of infrastructure development. And their laudable focus on recycling policy has yet to yield even one introduced bill in any state.

So, where do we go from here? First, we must acknowledge that, for all of our accomplishments, we are still woefully underachieving in packaging recovery in the U.S. We are far, far from optimizing the system, with negative consequences for everything from corporate sustainability goals to recycling job creation. If we make a sober analysis of the current system, we will discover wide-ranging issues of inadequate infrastructure, mediocre programs and under-investment. Under those circumstances, the fate of most packaging will be a landfill. One must wonder where the material will come from to meet the ambitious recycled content goals of major retailers and brand owners.

The one industry that could arguably make the most consequential positive impact on this picture is the packaging industry. And there are leaders in the industry who have shown the way. But the general mentality of “everything is okay” will not get us there. Pats on the back, well deserved as they may be, should not distract us from the work there is still left to do.

Scott Mouw is the state recycling program director for the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources. He is a member of the board of the Southeast Recycling Development Council and has been an active participant in numerous national and regional packaging recycling initiatives. Contact him at 919-707-8114 or [email protected].

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