In April, Dania Nasser, a graduate student at Yale University and a member of NAEM’s Emerging Leaders group, sat down to speak with Michael Washburn, Director of Sustainability at Nestlé Waters North America, about why the company is supporting an innovative approach to recycling called extended producer responsibility (EPR).
DN: Michael, what exactly is EPR?
MW: Common in Europe and Canada, EPR requires industries, such as the beverage industry, to pay for the collection and recycling of their products once they reach the end of life. We hope to bring the financial responsibility of recycling back to the industry, while collaborating with municipalities to increase access to curbside recycling and recycling away from home.
In 2010, Nestlé Waters North America (NWNA) supported the launch of an EPR program in the Canadian province of Manitoba, featuring four key elements: curbside recycling, public spaces recycling, commercial/institutional recycling and a public education plan. Results thus far have been encouraging, and will provide key learnings for EPR in the U.S.
DN: Why does NWNA support EPR?
MW: At Nestlé Waters, we seek to capture and reuse every Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) beverage container, so we put ourselves on the front lines of advancing recycling, whether it is in the lab, the field or at the policy level. While PET containers for bottled water make up less than 1 percent of all U.S. municipal solid waste, much work remains to ensure these, and all valuable recyclable materials, stay out of landfills.
It’s really in our best business interest as well: EPR serves as a risk-reduction strategy around our materials. Volatile commodity prices are an issue for us, and the ability recoup materials can help stabilize our costs.
To evaluate how to get our bottles back for creation of recycled PED (rPET) bottles, we examined a variety of recycling programs and found we’d need a multi-pronged approach that includes institutional and commercial recycling, as well as curbside and away-from-home. We see EPR as the only way you can do it, by folding fees into a broad variety of packaging, isolating them – importantly, outside of government – and then using funds derived from those fees to meet recycling goals that are set by state government.
Speaking of recycling goals, we hope that EPR will help to double U.S. recycling rates for all PET plastic bottles to 60 percent by 2018, a Corporate Citizenship goal we set in 2008.
DN: Some states have redemption incentives for in place for people. Did you examine this approach as well?
MW: We don’t want to dismantle bottle bills, but we do want to out-perform them, and so we are focusing our current efforts on non-bottle bill states. But there are other challenges to consider. Among other issues, bottle bills reinforce the notion that plastic bottles and beverage containers are the problem, when, in fact, these are only part of a broader societal problem in which too much valuable packaging material is going to landfills.
We want to have a deliberate, fact-rich dialogue on what EPR is and how it works, so we are working to launch EPR in states that don’t have a bottle bill, but have good recycling infrastructure and support in place, like Minnesota and Maryland. This will mean we can collaborate around EPR as a new model, without having to delve too far into the relative wisdom or merits of bottle bills.
In addition, we want to engage the kinds of stakeholders who traditionally support bottle deposits so they can come with us on this journey and understand that we can get higher rates of recovery with a different tool, and – from an environmental and efficiency standpoint – can ultimately out-perform bottle bills.
DN: What kinds of industry players and other stakeholders are you working with in support of EPR?
MW: We’re working with a really broad range of stakeholder groups, including consumer product companies, beverage companies, various trade associations, commodity groups, private haulers, municipalities, state legislatures, environmental NGOs, grocery retailers, other retailers, the forest product industry and more.
I’ll share one example of a stakeholder group. Recycling Reinvented is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization committed to advancing recycling rates of waste packaging and printed material in the U.S. through an EPR model that would require brand owners to develop and fund effective recycling programs. We are directly supporting Recycling Reinvented’s efforts, both through funding and our CEO Kim Jeffery’s leadership as a member of the organization’s board.
In addition, many people are aware of a dialogue process facilitated by a group called Future 500 that has brought together 30 organizations to talk about the best attributes of an EPR program that could work in states in the U.S and how to craft a legislative package and a strategy to successfully pass that package. We’re going to try and move legislation in 2013.
DN: Obviously, you’re hoping for the legislation to be successful. What’s its best selling point from a societal and government perspective?
MW: This is really the most rational approach to what is a challenging dynamic around the disposal of valuable materials in this country. Taxpayers should be uncomfortable with contributing to a system that brings only a 30 percent recycling rate for plastic bottles. So this is deeper than our own interests in the issue. We’re going to see a louder drumbeat growing over time from the standpoint of commodity associations that want this material back, municipal governments who are fiscally burdened by the current system and stakeholder groups that think that companies should shoulder this responsibility. I think that’s where our broader culture is headed—more and more, companies are expected to take responsibility for their products, from the sourcing of ingredients to disposal of packaging.