Nestle Waters’ approach to increasing recycling centers is a collaborative effort to create a system of extended producer responsibility, in which producers build the price of recycling plastic bottles and other solid waste into the price of the product. Sustainability Director Michael Washburn explains.
What is extended producer responsibility, or EPR?
Basically, it means building recycling capacity that’s paid for and managed by companies that produce material that’s going to be recycled.
EPR is not a deposit system or a take-back system; it’s a way to fund and expand curbside recycling and away-from-home recycling. Instead of having those costs be on the back of taxpayers, it’s paid for by companies in the cost of products. So at one level, consumers are paying for it, but each company decides how it wants to pass along the costs or absorb them internally.
There are 30 states that have some kind of a program that is EPR, but it’s typically for products such as electronics, tires and carpet. At the point of purchase, the consumer pays a fee, and that creates capacity for people to bring them back.
Where are we in terms of plastic-bottle recycling?
The rate of recycling for the kind of packages we use is about 30%.
Our goal is to move PET beverage-container recycling to 60% by 2018. That’s a challenge, and bottle deposits don’t seem to be the best path forward. We said OK, if you’re going to create a system that’s going to collect a lot of bottles nationwide without having a disjointed, taxpayer-funded system, how would you do it? The answer was that we really couldn’t do it only for plastic bottles; we had to think of it as a systems problem. If you’ve collected a lot of materials and brought a critical mass back, you have enough value flowing through the system to offset the cost, and it becomes self-sustaining. The pathway is EPR, so that’s how we came to use EPR as a tool.
It’s a solid-waste problem, so that means everybody has to play. Not only plastics folks — aluminum, cardboard, glass. So, right out of the box, you have to have a multisector approach. That sort of forced us into thinking how we engage not only other companies but also stakeholders across the board.
How are Nestle Waters and other beverage companies working together?
We started a dialogue process through an organization called Future 500. That has grown on the order of 30 or so organizations in categories including consumer packaged goods and beverage companies, folks from end-user markets such as aluminum and glass recyclers, the paper industry and people with technical expertise in EPR. We’re meeting regularly to come up with a model and a set of principles, then a set of specific attributes that would make up state-level EPR legislation.
Our actions include this dialogue, which has a tacit goal of articulating on behalf of a coalition what we think good EPR would look like. We’re talking with many parties to get their points of view on the elements of an overall package, including state governments, state agencies that manage solid waste and private companies such as Waste Management. And we’re actively advocating for EPR packaging — we want to be required as a company by law to participate in a system.
Second, while we’re calling for that, we want to responsibly listen and engage those parties so the proposal that ultimately lands on the table is politically viable and implementable. We want to see states require this of companies, so management of the money and implementation of the program should be up to industry, not vested in government. We know how to create an efficient, low-cost supply chain.
With an EPR program that funds recycling, you have 30% to 80% more coming back to that system. It diverts solid waste from landfills, so we think it’s a low-cost way to actually collect more material, save energy, reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and create jobs by virtue of recycling.