Recycling Reinvented, a St. Paul-based nonprofit that promotes market-based solutions, has a deep well of talent to draw from, including noted environmental attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Kim Jeffery, the former CEO of Nestlé Waters North America — one of the world’s biggest producers of bottled water.
Q: Kim, you’ve been involved with bottled water since 1978. Why are you involved in this recycling initiative?
A: There’s no reason things of value should end up in landfills. Plastic is only 4 percent of what makes up a landfill. About 40 percent is printed paper. I kept getting hammered by the environmental movement, and we can do better.
Q: Recycling Reinvented advocates an “extended producer responsibility” or EPR approach. You call it a “market-based recycling” system. What is it?
A: I created Recycling Reinvented because we keep doing things the same way. This system makes suppliers partners. We need one system. We have 80,000 municipalities in America and each has different recycling streams. All this stuff goes to ‘MRFs’ [municipal refuse facilities]. Some properly sort and some don’t. You can’t have a separate system for each type of recyclable … and different nonprofits beating the bushes in different states for bottle bills. We need a public-private partnership that works. We need to collect more of this stuff and the costs [of recovery will go down].
Q: How would a producer-funded system work?
A: As a producer, I may get charged a penny a bottle for what I sell — a tax. That goes into a private fund to invest in better recycling infrastructure, such as bins, curbside pickups, institutional commercial recycling. Education [is also important]. We need to tell everybody in Minnesota what they can recycle. Twenty years ago, you couldn’t turn a plastic bottle into a new bottle. Now we can. It’s the next most valuable item next to aluminum. And we shoot for a 60 percent or higher recycling rate. Industry … is good at logistics and reusing this material. And there’s no more state or local money for these programs.
Q: Aren’t you kind of out there alone on this?
A: Most of the consumer product companies are not on board yet. They are nervous. But they need to get involved. I’m trying to put together as big a coalition as I can. I’m optimistic we can get this done.
Q: Paul, are we capable of collecting more recyclables without spending more money?
A: A year ago, Recycling Reinvented commissioned a cost-benefit analysis to see what increases in recycling could take place by replacing our current funding system with one paid for by consumer brands that sell consumer packaging and printed paper.
The study showed us that if best practices in recycling were spread more evenly across the state, it could increase recycling of consumer packaging and printed paper by 32 percent.
Q: What are the economics?
A: We could expand best practices on a statewide scale — even in many rural areas — and do it for the same amount of money that we spend now. The study showed that Minnesotans pay $61 million to $74 million right now for household recycling services. We pay through property taxes, utility bills and hauler bills. Under EPR legislation, those fees would go away … when consumer brands pay that [as] a cost of doing business.
Q: Why is it in the public and/or private interest to use more recyclables as feedstock for new manufactured products?
A: The public interest is served because we all pay as taxpayers and ratepayers to care for landfills and to clean the old ones up. Minnesota households and businesses also pay a lot — more than we pay for recycling in some cases — to subsidize waste-to-energy facilities that burn garbage. There are also roughly 15,000 manufacturing jobs in Minnesota that rely on a steady stream of recycled material as a feedstock. Using recycled materials as a feedstock uses less water, less energy and fewer chemicals than using virgin materials, and there is usually a financial benefit there as well. One reason many consumer brands are interested in using more recycled materials is because it reduces their energy, water and carbon consumption, and it can be documented toward their sustainability goals.
Q: What are you asking the Minnesota Legislature to do, perhaps as early as next year?
A: Legislation would be required to set up a level playing field so that there are no free riders in the system. The broader the funding base, the lower the rate charged to each company. We are also suggesting that any business that sells less than $750,000 of packaging or printed paper in the state be exempted, which only makes up about 5 percent of sales.
Q: What’s the politics of this?
A: There has been bipartisan interest in several statehouses across the country. Democrats tend to like the idea of the environmental benefits as well as supporting American manufacturers who can’t get enough material. Republicans like the idea of letting the private sector solve problems. Waste haulers have not been too enthusiastic because they are concerned about losing control of their relationships with cities.
Q: Are you attracting industry partners?
A: Our partners at Nestlé Waters and I have met with many of the big consumer brands and their suppliers. Legislation is rarely the first thing that they would advocate, but most of them have agreed that the problem we are trying to solve is also one they are trying solve. Our cost-benefit study has helped frame the issue in terms they understand. We invite people to visit recycling-reinvented.org.