In early January I received an interesting and disturbing email from Product Policy Institute (www.productpolicy.org) Executive Director Bill Sheehan about an article by Nestlé CEO, Kim Jefferies – “Why It’s Time to Rethink Recycling in the US” – that was posted to greenbiz.com right before Christmas and has been widely circulated.
Sheehan wrote, “Jefferies embraces a version of Extended Producer Responsibility that would do away with industry-managed beverage container deposit-refund laws and replace them with industry-managed, government-delivered curbside programs. Jefferies’ description of ‘EPR’ as an alternative to deposit-refund systems is echoed in a recent report funded by Coca-Cola…. It seems to be part of a coordinated beverage industry campaign to co-opt EPR rather than fixing bottle bills and making container deposits the cornerstone of EPR for packaging.”
Readers should acquaint themselves with Jeffries’ article, the Coca-Cola study and criticisms of both, as they represent the latest skirmish in the longstanding war between industry and environmentalists over deposit-refund systems, which some describe as the original EPR program.
Jefferies article is on behalf of Nestlé Waters North America – a division of Nestlé that has a stated goal of achieving a 60 percent recycling rate for all PET plastic beverage containers in America by 2018 (not just the company’s own packaging).
Jeffries states that in “our efforts to identify workable solutions to reach that goal, we have to rethink the recycling challenge.” So far so good. He then (correctly) states, “[R]ecycling rates, currently at 25-30 percent, are not improving significantly. Logistics costs are rising and government fiscal crises jeopardize the viability of programs.”
Having written that, you’d think Jeffries would advocate the expansion of bottle bills to all 50 US states. Instead, the author smears the bottle bill programs in the 10 states that have them, writing that “[t]he problem with bottle bills is they create an enormous government bureaucracy, do only a reasonable job of diverting a very small portion of the waste stream – beverage containers – from landfills and do nothing to build curbside, public space and commercial recycling infrastructure. Bottle bills also lack consistent public education about the importance of recycling.”
His article continues with a confusing mish-mash of complaints about bottle bills and the amount of paper going to landfill, lack of recycling space at stores, and the fate of unredeemed deposits.
Experts in deposit-refund systems quickly skewered Jefferies’ article. Critics included the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality’s Peter Spendelow who dismissed the claim that bottle bills create an enormous government bureaucracy, writing that “there is no employee of the State of Oregon whose main job is to administer the bottle bill. Spendelow also skewers Jefferies’ claim that bottle bills do nothing to address paper recycling infrastructure, writing, “Actually, indirectly they do, by making the recycled paper supply much cleaner…. Broken glass is a major contaminant in the paper, costing our paper mills millions of dollars in damage to equipment and forcing them to install additional cleaning technology.”
NYPIRG’s Laura Haight wrote that her jaw dropped when she read the line about an enormous government bureaucracy. “Here in New York,” she wrote, “we have less than one full-time staff person in the DEC overseeing the program…. With an average return rate of over 70 per cent and more than six billion bottles and cans recycled each year in NY alone, the bottle bill is a great example of how effective EPR can be – all at virtually no cost to taxpayers.”
The report funded by Coca-Cola was written by consultant Gil Friend and his associates at Natural Logic, California. The report proposes a strategy to collect all consumer packaging and printed paper together, as an alternative to bottle deposit laws. The system proposed for recycling of packaging material is 100 per cent funded by producers, with the Recovery Organization (NPRO) controlling the funds, contracts and details of curbside recycling programs. Alternately, funding responsibility could be shared between producers and municipalities, but the research suggests that a “full cost” system provides for better control of recovery system efficiencies, and more powerful incentives for product design strategies that will drive further waste stream reductions.
This approach stands in contrast to the EPR approach advocated by Andrew Green and Michael Trebilcock in a C.D. Howe Institute paper published last December. They conclude that the best system is one that imposes individual responsibility to the greatest extent possible and allows for a range of contractual arrangements to undertake these responsibilities. They argue that competition and the underlying governance structures are central to the effectiveness, efficiency, and fairness of the program but are often neglected or poorly designed. (They recommend fixes.)
There may be merit in contemplating alternative approaches to EPR, but Jefferies’ article doesn’t give much confidence that the Coca-Cola-funded report is much more than smoke and mirrors from industries that wish to avoid direct responsibility for the end-of-life-management of their products and packaging.
Note: I’ve posted Jefferies’ article and the critic’s comments on my blog at www.solidwastemag.com The next edition of this magazine will feature an article examining single- versus dual-stream recycling and their effects on paper mills and markets.
Guy Crittenden is editor of this magazine. Contact Guy at email@example.com