Earth Day Q&A: Fixing America’s Recycling System

At Consumer Brands, our Vice President of Packaging & Sustainability, John Hewitt, is focused on what’s best for consumers and the planet. This Earth Day, we’re checking in with him to see how his role is evolving and opportunities to fix America’s recycling system.  

  1. Tell us a little bit about what Consumer Brands is focused on.

I lead packaging and sustainability efforts on behalf of the consumer packaged goods industry, from advocacy and education to marketplace solutions. Our team is also leading the call for a federal recycling standard to minimize confusion for consumers that nearly 10,000 systems create, and we’re focused on policies to promote a circular economy as well as the Federal Trade Commission’s Green Guides update (which would be their first in more than 10 years).   

  1. What do you see as the biggest hurdle in improving circularity in the United States? 

The lack of a standard definition of key terms such as ‘recyclable’ is the first part of the problem. With more than 10,000 systems across the country – each making their own rules – consumers are often left to guess or are confused despite a strong desire to recycle. Having a standard definition of recyclable will help to strengthen the nation’s recycling system by encouraging and boosting recycling rates.   

  1. Well, that makes it seem like there’s a lot of opportunity to fix America’s recycling system. How do you think the industry can play a role in achieving this?

Our members, and the CPG industry overall are designing for recyclability, incorporating recycled content, and lightweighting. But it doesn’t stop there. We know it will take significant funding to modernize the system and move closer to our goal of a circular economy and the industry stands ready for a shared responsibility model. However, the funds need to prioritize actual infrastructure needs.   

  1. What are some innovative packaging solutions you’ve seen CPG companies take on?

The CPG industry is committed to protecting the planet and doing their part. From bamboo toothbrushes to sustainable packaging materials made from recycled fibers, our companies continue to amaze us at the innovative ways they’re looking out for consumers and our planet.  

  1. What is one thing you want policymakers to keep in mind ahead of this year’s Earth Day?

Policymakers need to make recycling a priority. Right now, the system in many places is underperforming. Cities and counties are reducing and, in some cases, even eliminating recycling programs – which, of course, is a step in the wrong direction. Now, there is some momentum at the federal level. Hearings have been held on this very topic and pieces of legislation have been introduced. But we’re still missing the one thing that can streamline recycling systems across the country. Uniformity. Governments at the federal and state level must come together to move toward uniform standards. 

  1. On that note, what are you watching this year?

We’ll be closely watching two bills which we have supported in the Senate – the Recycling and Composting Accountability Act and the Recycling Infrastructure and Accessibility Act – which would both help kickstart action at the federal level which we deeply need. I spoke with Food Navigator about how the Recycling and Composting Accountability Act could help fill information gaps for CPG companies as they work to meet their sustainability goals.