Recycling and…China?

June 1, 2010

Hello my packaging and sustainability friends! I am feeling tip top today after having a four-day hiatus from work: I slept, I swam, I sunbathed, I ate…good times. I hope you all had an equally relaxing Memorial Day weekend, too!

AND know what’s even weirder—I actually missed work. That’s right, I missed the act of being productive…go figure!

So my last post was a little all over the place. I do believe, however, that this article may tie it all together, which then gets me on another rant of sorts. First, observe:  

NAPCOR: US efforts to recycle falling short

By Mike Verespej | PLASTICS NEWS STAFF

Posted May 28, 2010

SONOMA, CALIF. (May 28, 10:45 a.m. ET) — Longtime plastics recycling advocate Dennis Sabourin said “bold steps” are needed to increase supplies of not just recycled PET bottles but all plastics and recycling materials.

The executive director of the National Association for PET Container Resources in Sonoma, Calif., and a former Wellman Inc. executive said it is time for extended producer-responsibility laws and eco-fees on products. Also needed are public-policy initiatives that provide funds for recyclers to create green jobs and for stakeholders to come together, in coalition-style, to advance the recycling of all materials.

Even with the green movement, Sabourin said, “recycling is still not a front-burner issue,” as it was in 1995, when the PET recycling rate climbed to nearly 40 percent. That rate plummeted to less than 20 percent by 2003 before rebounding in 2008 to 27 percent — based on the most recent numbers available.

 “Why not have a national initiative to divert some of the stimulus funds to recycling on a broad-based effort?” he asked. “That would create jobs in the United States.”

He called initiatives introduced by Vermont and Rhode Island, and the extended producer-responsibility law passed by Maine earlier this year, steps in the right direction. “They will not give us any immediate relief from a supply standpoint, but EPR will bear fruit down the road,” he said, noting that an EPR law in Canada has given recycling rates there a huge boost. Canada’s return/diversion rate for non-alcoholic beverage containers is 64 percent.

He said the biggest obstacle to more recycling is the lack of a concerted public policy to motivate consumers to recycle, a move that would create jobs.

 “There are plenty of materials out there and plenty of markets for those materials. We have to reach out and start working together to get more materials collected,” he said.

For the full article, visit http://www.plasticsnews.com/headlines2.html?id=18730&channel=260.

This article was referred to me by my co-lead of the PET subcommittee for Walmart-Canada because it illustrates the infrastructural differences between recycling in America and recycling in Canada, where I am now focusing a lot of my research/work.

ANYWAY, what I am trying to imply between my last post and Sabourin’s argument (that some sort of legislation must be put on the books that REQUIRES industry/municipalities to meet recycling targets in order to increase the diversion rates in the States), is, touché! I believe that until there are some extended producer responsibility requirements implemented in the States that forces industry and municipalities to work together to divert more materials from the landfill, my recycling initiative will continue to be just that—an initiative, with little sight of implementation.

While there are some positive signs like retailers advocating post-consumer content in products and packages or recycling drop-off centers (think Whole Foods), I see little improvement across-the-board in regard to the amount of materials recycled in America until EPR legislation is implemented. As mentioned here and again throughout my blog, we need: SUPPLY, which we don’t have because no one is collecting it or they don’t wish to compete with China for purchasing post industrial/consumer scrap; DEMAND, which we don’t have with the crash of the economy, although this is changing as CPG companies look for quality streams of post-consumer plastics; and, INVESTMENT, which we defiantly don’t have because it has not been an economic priority (why worry about recycling plastics when the cost of virgin resins is so low?!?).

BUT then enter EPR, which requires producers i.e. brand owners, first importers, product manufactures (those responsible for putting the product/package on the shelf) to FUND the recovery of their product’s packaging waste post-consumer. Then all of a sudden organizations like Fost Plus in Belguim or Stewardship Ontario in Canada develop to help manage the money transfer from industry to municipalities and viola, the recovery rates of packaging—all packaging—would increase. I am sure it’s not that easy but you get the gist…

Anyway, I wished to include this argument in our June Newsletter (we send out newsletters each month updating all our contacts in regard to what is new at Dordan and what is new in the industry), but was met with some hesitation from some of the more “business-minded” folk at Dordan. According to these colleagues, EPR legislation would probably not do well by domestic manufactures because all of a sudden, our packages would become more expensive (or the product would become more expensive, or the cost to manage the waste would be pushed throughout the supply chain) than those produced overseas in say, China, where they have no EPR legislation on the books. But the first importers would be required to pay for managing Chinese packaging waste post-consumer, right? If so, would that provide an incentive to source packaging domestically? Now I’m confused.

SOOOOO our CEO called me into his office to discuss EPR and its implications into our business because I wanted to highlight this article in our June newsletter, and he wanted to ensure that we were not shooting ourselves. What he basically said, like any good American dream manifestation, is: why is our industry being targeted as irresponsible with our waste while CPG companies source TONS of products and packages from overseas, where little environmental and labor regulations exist? In a nut shell: What are the ethics of being “environmentally friendly” in the context of sourcing international manufacturing?

AND enter new research project: I am now going to be researching all that is Chinese manufacturing to come up with an argument that highlights the contradictions between trying to be “green” and sourcing manufacturing overseas.

I sent one of my former professors the following email, which marks the beginning of my research journey:

Hello!

This is Chandler Slavin—I graduate last spring from the Religious Studies Department and took your class on inter-faith engagement (I had the Turkish versus Greek debate) my senior year. Remember?

I hope this email finds you well.

I was wondering if you could help me with something: I work for my family business, which is a domestic manufacturer of plastic packaging for the consumer electronics industry. I am the Sustainability Coordinator, which means I research issues pertaining to sustainability and packaging in order to stay ahead of the curve and market ourselves as a “green” manufacturer. In our industry, there is a lot of concern over the “sustainability” of a product or package and many retailers have invested considerable amounts of time and money into trying to “green up” their image by switching packaging materials, having recycling drop-off centers, and labeling various products as “environmentally friendly.”

Anyway, often times we sell packaging based on discussions of sustainability. However, our biggest competitor isn’t other green plastics manufacturers but Chinese manufacturers, who can sell packages at a much lower cost into our economy, while we are unable to sell our packages into their economy without paying some sort of tax or entering some kind of agreement with the Chinese government.

Our CEO wants me to research this contradiction:

While American product producers are being pressured to green up their products/packages (I have been working on a recycling initiative for months now) or dispose of products/packages responsibly (its called “extended producer responsibility” and CA has some of these laws on the books in regard to managing electronic waste), many American product producers i.e. brand owners, are sourcing the manufacturing of their product and package overseas, where lax environmental regulations and labor laws allow for unsustainable production profiles and cheap products. Basically, when everyone in our industry is obsessing about the sustainability of a package (market research shows that consumers are more likely to buy products labeled as “green”), we are constantly competing with overseas manufacturers, who have absolutely no environmental or social platform in the context of “sustainability.”

Wow, that’s a lot. Because you work on environmental policy I was wondering what you knew about Chinese economic and social development in the context of the environment. If willing, could I come visit you and perhaps you could point me in the right direction? Seriously, any insight you could provide would be very well received. Think of it as the ethics of green marketing vs. overseas manufacturing…sounds intriguing, no?

Thanks for your time!

Best,

Chandler Slavin

Tune in tomorrow for more goodness!

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