The Evolving Ton and the Circular Economy

by | Jun 23, 2016

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Elisabeth ComereAt the Sustainability in Packaging Conference held in Chicago this past April, a surprising number of presentations focused on packaging recycling topics. Increasing consumer access to recycling, changing recycling behavior through labeling and better linking brand owners with recyclers were among the topics covered. Five years ago, recycling took a backseat to topics such as sustainable design and life cycle analysis.   A primary reason for this shift in emphasis is the growing realization of the importance of having an effective post-consumer materials recovery and recycling system, and secondly, concern over the fact that the current system in the United States is falling short of meeting this objective.

Business interest in packaging recycling originally stemmed from a desire to be seen as “green” in the eyes of consumers.  While this is still a driver, increasingly companies are recognizing the business case for transitioning to a circular economy and are recognizing that this will be impossible without having material resources effectively captured and returned back into the supply stream to feed future manufacturing processes.

Companies are also becoming more aware of the implications of packaging design and selection on what ends up in the stream of materials destined for recycling.  A new term –“the evolving ton”– has been coined to describe this very circumstance.  Use of heavier packaging such as glass containers and steel cans has been declining, and there is a shift toward use of increasingly lighter packaging materials as well as less printed paper. Consequently, a ton of materials set out for recycling today is a very different mix of materials than what was in the ton that recycling systems were originally designed to handle.

As one example, according to materials processor, ReCommunity, it takes over 10,000 more 16-ounce plastic bottles to make 1 ton of recycled PET today than it did in 1980. Aluminum containers are following the same trend. While a positive indication of resource efficiency, this is not good news for materials recovery facilities (MRFs). The same volume of material now hits the recycling facility scale at a much lower weight. Essentially, MRFs are doing double the processing work for the same revenue. This, plus a dip in commodity prices is making it very difficult to operate MRFs profitably. Making things even more challenging is public confusion over what is now recyclable, resulting in an increase in contaminants in the incoming materials stream. When in doubt, consumers practice what the industry has termed “wishful recycling” whereby they put items in their recycling bins in hopes that it will be recycled instead of landfilled. Meanwhile, packaging manufacturers and brand owners  eager to have their packaging recycled are seeking ways of getting it in the recycling bin, thus adding further to the challenges confronted by recycling program operators. 

According to Maria Kelleher, an expert on recycling programs, the types of packaging likely to increase in curbside recycling programs are also likely to be the most expensive to process on a per ton basis. Her advice? “Plan for a future of higher recycling program costs, at least until markets and technologies catch up and adapt to our evolving ton.”

As a result of these circumstances, companies are becoming increasingly aware of the disconnect between what has traditionally been a form of waste management and what is needed in the way of a regenerative materials supply system. There appears to be a high degree of interest, but lack of consensus, over the appropriate role of manufacturers and brand owners in what is now a system managed by local governments and their private service providers. 

Some companies, including Tetra Pak, have stepped forward with investment in best practices education, research, promotional assistance and equipment grants. But a true transition to a circular economy where materials are efficiently and effectively captured and fed back into the supply stream cannot come about without more such investment.  This means making not only the paradigm shift in how we think about recovered materials supply, but a shift where the recovery infrastructure is truly part of the manufacturing supply chain and not just a secondary component of what is largely a government run waste management system. 

As circular economy stakeholders increasingly focus on building a regenerative supply system, businesses will begin to play a greater role in shaping the practices of recovered materials suppliers just as companies have done with respect to their traditional suppliers.  Will this entail more certification systems to instill use of best practices?  More use of policy mechanisms to influence recycling behavior?  More vertical integration? Or perhaps all of these and more?

The time is now for us to begin exploring answers to these questions and determining how we can best enhance the supply chain that will be essential to a healthy circular economy.

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