Companies Pick Up Used Packaging, and Recycling’s Cost
Brushing your teeth with a yogurt container? Wiping your mouth with a coffee cup?
You might be doing both, as a result of a new trend in recycling, courtesy of the manufacturers who make the original products. A growing number of large food and beverage companies in the United States are assuming the costs of recycling their packaging after consumers are finished with it, a responsibility long imposed on packaged goods companies in Europe and more recently in parts of Asia, Latin America and Canada.
Several factors are converging to make what is known as “extended producer responsibility” more attractive and, perhaps, more commonplace in the United States.
“Local governments are literally going broke and so are looking for ways to shift the costs of recycling off onto someone, and companies that make the packaging are logical candidates,” said Jim Hanna, director of environmental impact at the Starbucks Corporation. “More environmentally conscious consumers are demanding that companies share their values, too.”
Perhaps most important, he said, “companies are becoming more aware that resources are limited and what they’ve traditionally thrown away — wow, it has value.” It is now cheaper to recycle an aluminum can into a new can than it is to make one from virgin material, and the same is becoming true for plastic bottles.
“Shredding, melting, recasting and rerolling used aluminum beverage cans into new aluminum can sheet saves 95 percent of the energy that it takes to make can sheet from raw ore,” said Beth Schmitt, director of recycling at Alcoa.
The principle is the same with used plastic bottles, which are made from petroleum — and are one of the country’s largest exports to China, where they are used to make fabric fibers. “Tuna cans, cereal boxes, laundry detergent bottles — all of it has value in end markets that are thirsty for it,” said Michael Washburn, director of sustainability at Nestlé Waters North America, a bottled-water producer.
So far, company-sponsored recycling efforts are voluntary in the United States. Many states have laws requiring companies to take responsibility for spent products like batteries and mercury switches, but so far, only Maine has a law that might shift the cost of discarded packaging to business. Passed in 2010, it established a framework that allows the state to add products, including packaging, to the list of those for which manufacturers must assume the costs of disposal. So far, however, no new products have been added.