Zero Waste: EPR and Plastics

I apologize if, in a previous post focused on Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), I may have oversimplified the problem with the solutions I offered. In my mind, those solutions seemed the obvious choices.However in the days following that post, I thought my comments may warrant a disclaimer.

So here’s the disclaimer:

  1. I have been in talks with a coalition of plastics recyclers anxious to begin selling their post-consumer recyclable (PCR) materials to a marketplace flush with cheap, virgin material and they want my help with that effort;
  2. I also think you should know that I believe there is a solution to this problem that we may not have considered, something so out-of-the-box, the kind of thinking I am known for, that it has yet to be expressed in the public forum – yet – so some of the posts you are reading are setting you up for the big reveal – unless of course your company or locality hires my services;
  3. I am also uncertain that the big retailers I mentioned in that article are really interested in EPR or PCR or recycling where recycling doesn’t exist, except in an existential way. Their postering before the consumer that their company is headed towards a sustainable goal by such-and-such a date provides a salve for the public’s concern about the environment (oceans, air and the landfills). When it comes to plastic, they lean towards sustainably raised products rather than sustainably manufactured packaging. And they reluctantly follow local and state plastic bag bans. However, those sustainable dates they publish are often arbitrary and are meant to also soothe the shareholder about sudden potential dips in the share price for any less-than-retail-focused initiative – which will not happen;
  4. I am also on the fence about plastic, as are most consumers. If you understand the resistance to the recycling efforts goes beyond the aforementioned cheap materials, artificially made less expensive by an economic argument and/or insistence that oil prices fuel the economy’s growth and should be kept cheap and instead just consider the behavior or recycling at every level of the economy, it seems the only natural step is to ban or tax the behavior into submission. Every consumer knows plastic is a harmful material. And many of those same consumers understand the problems faced with recycling even if their local area has a program in place (few do). Like the businesses they shop and the communities they live in, those consumers feel a kinship: They do not want to pay for it.

Plastic is a real problem.

No. Plastic is not the problem.

Recycling behavior surrounding plastic is the real problem.

We know that plastic:

  • does not degrade and if there are additives added to it, making it oxo-degradable for instance (degradable with oxygen and sunlight), the result is more methane in the landfills (not all landfills are capable of capturing this gas) and the potential for additional toxic chemicals being added defeats the purpose;
  • if you think paper is the solution, think again carefully. According to the Sierra Club, “you have to reuse a paper bag four times to reduce its carbon footprint to that of a single-use plastic bag; a heavy-duty plastic five times; a polypropylene type 14 times; and a cotton one 173 times. And of course, you don’t have to pay 10 cents each time you use it.”
  • plastic is cheaper to make and transport. Paper bags, the often go-to replacement actually emits 51% more global warming gasses, creates 50 times more water pollution, uses 4 times more raw materials, consumes 2 times more energy and is unlikely to be reused (recycled but not put back to work as it was originally designed);
  • even where plastic bag bans are in place, the plastic bag to paper bag cost-to-recycle tradeoff is still relatively unknown. Plastic bags are still essential to food transportation and storage by producers and consumers. Including additional PCRs in packaging production can improve this cost and get all parties closer to the desired outcome. Paper has an equally unknown impact on carbon stored in the forests as well as for the manufacture of paper bags and may have an as-yet quantified costs to recycling rates.

So where does that leave the effort? For one, consumers are not a separate entity in the circular economy dynamic. They have to understand that the short-term results in an recycling effort will not be impressive enough to explain the additional costs. It will be nearly impossible for climate change deniers to adopt the scientific reasoning and/or logic that supports the effort. Pictures of marine pollution will have an impact but will it move those who do not recycle currently?

Companies also have to understand the message needs to be clear: The consumer will pay more for any recycling effort. How will this additional costs be delivered? As a tax? A levy? A check stand charge for bags? Or will the retailer simply suggest that bags, a relatively modern change in how we shop, are not a convenience but instead a roadblock to all sorts of recycling costs. Suppose no bags were provided? Concessions are made throughout plastic bag ban areas to allow plastic bags for produce items. This is also a confusing message to the customer. Suppose no bags were provided?

Many large retailers do encourage recycling and some actually collect single use plastic bags. However, those same retailers are not always open to the potential that they could do more – and at a significant cost savings to the company, the consumer and the landfill. Like the consumer they service, they are unsure of how to quantify the effort. In good economic times, they can pass the cost along to the consumer, tucked inside operational costs. In less prosperous economic times, the retailer may absorb some of those costs.

Next up: A disclosure about organics and Zero Waste Consultants LLC.

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