Thinking About the Planet in a World Upended

Across the country — and the globe — our day-to-day has changed. Before the coronavirus pandemic, a movement toward solving America’s packaging waste crisis was underway. While nascent and far from effecting the kind of change we need, evidence of this movement — refillable water bottle stations in airports, recycling bins becoming as commonplace as trash cans in public spaces, coffee shops encouraging mugs from home — was energizing.

But preventing the spread of COVID-19 is of paramount importance and a small part of the toll this virus is taking is on building up a culture of reusability. I’d like us to return there, but it’s going to be a long time and it may never look the same. The reusable mug I faithfully carry with me daily may stay on the shelf long after the curve is flattened, whether I want it to or not.

As reusable options are temporarily suspended, a functioning recycling system has never been more important. There are obvious challenges to keeping the system running — the consequences manifesting as more and more systems are forced to shut down. Recycling cannot disappear — now or in the future — because the need for packaging isn’t going away, the demand for recycled material isn’t going away and the desire to keep recyclable packaging out of landfills, oceans and the environment isn’t going away.

April 22 marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. While it won’t be marked by the kinds of celebrations we’ve seen in the past in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, it is a strong reminder that once the health of people is assured — the clear priority of the industry and the world — the health of the planet will remain a concern. I was recently drawn to a quote from Earth Day founder and Senator Gaylord Nelson who said, “The objective was to get a nationwide demonstration of concern for the environment so large that it would shake the political establishment out of its lethargy and, finally, force this issue permanently onto the national political agenda.”

Earth Day’s golden anniversary is no time for lethargy. With the launch of its policy platform, Consumer Brands has put forward its view on how to build a recycling system that is transformative, well-funded and lasting.

We’ve spent months developing the platform, but decades informing it. The collective experience of the industry gives it a critical perspective into a recycling system that works. The industry knows, perhaps more than any other stakeholder in the circular economy, that harmonized standards are critical to designing packaging that is consistently recyclable —  everywhere. With that in mind, harmonization is the first element of our three-element platform.

Establish a standardized foundation

There are nearly 10,000 municipal-run recycling programs in the US, all with unique rules. This patchwork prevents scale and directly contributes to vast consumer confusion, causing low participation rates and high levels of contamination. One possible way to achieve standardized recycling is to create national minimum standards for Materials Recovery Facilities (MRFs). If all MRFs accepted the same types and forms of packaging for recycling, we would achieve harmonization — it would also allow us to better educate consumers on how to recycle, reducing confusion and raising participation.

Finance a lasting recycling system

There is a significant cost to creating a recycling system built for 21st century needs, but there is a vastly more substantial cost to doing nothing. Financing mechanisms — whether through recommitting existing revenues, new fees, check-off programs — must drive desired behaviors of all stakeholders, the CPG industry included. Regardless of where the funds come from, they must be dedicated exclusively to improving the recycling system, enhancing recycling infrastructure or educating consumers. It is imperative that we do not play politics with this money or use it to solve budget shortfalls. It has a purpose that deserves to be fulfilled.

Strengthen end markets to meet demand

Recyclable material that is not recycled contributes to a significant shortage of some post-consumer recycled materials. As it stands, there is only enough to meet six percent of existing demand. China negatively changed the economics of recycling with its National Sword policy. But policies that support the development and maintenance of strong end markets could change those economics again — this time for the better. Here, the federal and state governments have the largest role to play and can make a real difference in creating and incenting recycling infrastructure investment and end-market development.

The policy platform is just a beginning. There is room for other stakeholders to bring their experience and perspective. There is room for debate over how to go forward. There is room for innovation to change ideas. There is, however, no room for complacency.

As we emerge from a heartbreaking moment for the country that will change us in ways still unrealized, I want to remain focused on what’s possible. I hope that with the launch of this platform, we’re a little bit closer to making what’s possible, probable.

From providing original research, industry guidance and cutting-edge insights, to advocating on Capitol Hill and shaping policy that will have an impact for years to come, we are committed to delivering for our industry during this crisis. Stay informed.