Washington state Sen. Christine Rolfes was expecting industry lobbyists to oppose her bill making corporations pay for recycling in the Evergreen State. But alongside the usual plastic manufacturers and waste firms was a new opponent — a defender of bubble wrap, cereal bags and takeout containers.
A lobbyist for the St. Paul-based American Institute for Packaging and the Environment (Ameripen) spoke against Rolfes’ bill on behalf of some of America’s largest corporations — including General Mills and 3M. Last year, lawmakers replaced the regulation proposal with a study.
“I was really surprised that the packaging industry had their own lobbyist,” Rolfes said in an interview.
Faltering recycling systems and concerns about ocean plastics have spurred state lawmakers from California to Maine to propose new rules targeting plastic waste, particularly from packaging. Many prompt a visit from Ameripen, a decade-old nonprofit that now has registered lobbyists in eight states.
A General Mills executive chairs the Ameripen board, and its members include other corporate titans like Dow Chemical, Procter & Gamble and PepsiCo. Ameripen’s lesser-known members make everyday products like bubble wrap, takeout containers and the flexible pouches that hold nuts and granola.
The political fight illustrates larger tensions that corporations, including retailers like Target Corp., face as they balance competing consumer desires for convenient and sustainable packaging. Many argue they are reducing the use of plastic on their own, without government intervention, like 3M swapping plastic for cardboard on packaging for its Scotch-brand dish scrubbers.
“Ameripen … is a wonderful clearinghouse to stay abreast of packaging policy and legislation. They are all over it,” said Ann Meitz, 3M’s sustainability director for its consumer business. “What can be really tricky for a company like 3M is if, state by state, people try to implement regulation, that gets really challenging to follow.”
Ameripen’s lobbyists bounce around the country. It says it is monitoring about 450 bills, with registered lobbyists in California, Connecticut, Maine, Vermont, Oregon, Colorado, Arizona and Washington state.
They are often mobilized to fight so-called extended producer responsibility laws, or EPR, that make corporations that produce packaging pay for recycling programs. Such laws exist in Canada and Europe, but they have not been implemented in the United States. Other legislation they track involves bans on certain packaging, or mandates that manufacturers use a certain amount of recycled material.
“There has been a significant insurgence of legislation related to the packaging industry across several different fronts,” said Dan Felton, Ameripen’s executive director.
In 2016, Connecticut considered holding packaging producers responsible for recycling, but it ultimately created a task force that recommended against it.
Ameripen is “omnipresent when it comes to state initiatives addressing [producer responsibility] for packaging,” said Tom Metzner, an environmental analyst for the state of Connecticut, who sat on the task force. “They are very vocal in expressing their concerns.”
‘Pedal to the metal’
The costs of processing recycling today is largely covered by local governments and their residents. Selling those recyclables to companies that make new products historically helped support the programs. But commodity prices have tanked due in large part to China’s decision to stop accepting shipments of recycling from America, upending the economics that kept recycling programs afloat.
“We’re now putting pedal to the metal and trying to figure out what we can say and some valid solutions to come forward with,” Felton said.
In response to the Washington bill, Ameripen’s leading lobbyist, Andy Hackman, testified that the organization would rather see expanded access to recycling, better recycling infrastructure and fees charged to residents based on how much they toss.
Ameripen claims to be the country’s only policy-focused organization representing “the entire packaging industry.” Its registered address is in St. Paul because an association management firm there, Ewald Consulting, helps with its operations. But there are also signs Ameripen is beefing up: It lacked an executive director for several years until Felton joined this January.
“Ameripen is leading on the public policy side of packaging,” said Lee Anderson, General Mills’ director of state government relations and chairman of Ameripen. “One of the things that is helpful for General Mills is having a group that can go out and study these things in deeper detail than we have the resources to do.”
Convenient vs. recyclable
Consumers’ growing demand for convenience, home food delivery and online shopping is complicating the problem of plastic waste. Ameripen representatives say the rapid rise of e-commerce is generating more flexible film packaging that is not recyclable at the curb, for example, highlighting the need for new technologies and markets to handle it.
Consumers often don’t consider the recyclability of packaging until after they’ve bought something, said Laurie Demeritt, chief executive of the Hartman Group, a Seattle-based consumer research firm focused on food.
“This issue of recyclability is so tangible when it is in their home, but it isn’t a thought at the store,” Demeritt said. “In the end, convenience usually wins.”
But Americans increasingly feel that changing their own habits isn’t enough and are looking to government and companies to take responsibility for the plastics problem, according to recent research from the Hartman Group.
Leaders at Eureka Recycling, which processes recyclables for Minneapolis and St. Paul, say a growing amount of plastic entering their doors can’t be sorted and sold like traditional bottles and containers. More products come in pouches, which are often made of multiple materials and get mixed with paper because they’re flat. Flexible plastic film tangles around spindles and also contaminates paper bales.
On a recent tour through Eureka’s facility in northeast Minneapolis, co-president Lynn Hoffman spotted some insulation for food delivered through meal services like Hello Fresh. Labeling said it was made of recycled bottles and is “curbside recyclable,” but Hoffman said there’s no market for it. It had been yanked off the line by workers, in addition to a number of plastic Amazon Prime bubble-lined envelopes.
“It’s incredibly challenging for [recycling centers] to stay on top of that and have the right equipment in place,” said Eureka co-president Kate Davenport. “So we believe that there needs to be producer responsibility in the packaging that they design and the impact that that has on the system.”
Efforts to change
Companies argue that they are already changing their packaging ways and working together on solutions.
General Mills says the majority of its packaging is paper or paperboard — the nation’s most recycled material. All of its plastic bags that hold cereal inside the box are recyclable, but only at in-store drop-off locations.
Anderson, of General Mills, admits the majority of consumers don’t know that or take the time to take their cereal bags to a store. That’s why, he argues, the corporations’ responsibility should be to better educate its consumers, rather than government mandates.
Many consumer brands, including 3M, General Mills and Target, are also funding recycling initiatives through organizations like the Recycling Partnership and Sustainable Packaging Coalition. “[Companies] are putting in lots of money,” said Meitz of 3M.
Minnesota makes producers of batteries, electronics and paint pay to recover those materials. But state legislators haven’t targeted packaging as aggressively as some other states. Ameripen has no lobbyist registered in Minnesota.