The notion of “extended producer responsibility’’ is the core idea behind a new market-based approach to recycling.
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.