Circular Economy Infrastructure Will Build Value For All Americans
May 03, 2021
The circular economy is becoming big business in America. For example, just one piece of the circular economy, the recycling industry, generates over $100 billion in economic activity, nearly $13 billion in federal, state and local tax revenue and supports over 500,000 jobs annually.
On a more personal level, as global supply chains began to crack during the COVID-19 pandemic, our domestic recycling infrastructure saved us from major shortages of critical consumer products — like toilet paper. But that is only a fraction of the value the circular economy can provide on both a local and national level.
A policy known as Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), now being introduced at the state and federal level, would create a massive investment in local recycling and circular economy infrastructure. Through a fee paid by consumer goods companies, thoughtfully-constructed EPR will save billions of dollars spent annually in landfill disposal fees. It would create hundreds of thousands of local jobs and provide consumer goods companies a reliable and cost-effective alternative to their current dependence on limited raw materials, which generate enormous amounts of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions during extraction.
In the past, advocating that companies take responsibility for the sustainable management of their products was the sole domain of environmentalists. But we are now seeing multiple stakeholders, including CEOs, politicians, customers and shareholders align on the view that when brands invest in local recycling and circular economy infrastructure to protect the environment, it creates value for businesses too. In New York this January, State Sen. Toddy Kaminsky (D) introduced an EPR bill that has gained broad support, and similar legislation has been introduced or is being considered in California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maryland, New Hampshire, New York, Oregon, Vermont and Washington state.
A select group of CEOs of major consumer goods companies have recognized that what happens to a product after its initial use poses a risk — but when managed properly, can be an opportunity to secure long term value. Mark Schneider, the CEO of Nestlé, wrote recently, “[B]old and meaningful action in this space can become a competitive advantage, contributing to improved market share and growth.” Former Unilever CEO, Paul Polman, saw the opportunity to meet consumer demand years ago and trailblazed with sustainable business practices and products. During his decade-long tenure as CEO from 2009-2018, Unilever’s stock price increased by 290 percent. Investors took notice. Alan Jope, Unilever’s current CEO, has continued to expand Unilever’s commitment to sustainable business practices.
Three considerations are key to make EPR successful. First, stakeholders should gain consensus on the goal for EPR and incentivize brands to achieve it. Second, we should update the definition of “recyclable” to ensure that only products that are profitable for municipal recycling programs are designated as recyclable. Third, we must allocate funds from an EPR program directly to municipal recycling programs and empower local leaders to invest the funds in the infrastructure required to achieve their waste reduction goals. Styrofoam is an example of a packaging material that is challenging to recycle and has a limited market, while aluminum is infinitely recyclable and has a strong market.
For true accountability, all parties should set a goal for the policy and decide how to measure progress. Experience shows us that the best objective would be a recycling rate percentage well above today’s average recycling rate of around 30 percent, and a percentage of post-consumer recycled content used in the manufacturing of a product or packaging. EPR fees charged to consumer goods companies should not be viewed as the goal, but as a means to achieve the goal of a fully circular production system, where reliance on natural resource extraction and landfills is limited. Therefore, incentives for brands — fee waivers, designation to consumers and public recognition — are key for products to achieve a high recycling rate and use of recycled content. Where it’s not possible for producers to currently meet such goals for a particular product due to technical or economic limitations, this system and waiver could help incentivize producers to switch to recyclable or compostable materials or adopt reusable packaging models.
Which brings us to the next: a clear definition of what “recyclable” means. Recyclable has traditionally been defined as the ability of a product or material to be collected and sorted by a recycling facility in the United States. This does not take into account the economics of the recycling industry and the municipal recycling programs that are expected to remain solvent and grow. The result: consumer goods companies claiming that a product is recyclable, while municipal recycling programs struggle to find profitable end markets for it.
“Recyclability” should be defined as “a product whose primary material is sold by a municipal recycling facility for a profit.” Therefore, in order to receive a designation of “recyclable,” a product should have a market value of above the processing cost of materials (paper, metal, glass, plastic) at municipal recycling facilities across the United States. This stipulation would encourage producers to be more rigorous from the outset regarding their packaging design, connecting the diverse pieces of the system, from designer to producer to recycler, so that all stakeholders are in agreement that a product has value in a circular system. The EPR fee structure should be designed to motivate brands to ensure that their product is recyclable (per the definition above), is recycled and uses all or mostly recycled content in manufacturing.
Third, we should allocate funds from an EPR program directly to municipal recycling programs, empowering local leaders to invest the funds in infrastructure and innovation. It is critical that legacy policies, such as bottle bills that conflict with municipal recycling collection programs, be phased out as EPR policy is adopted. There are a number of leaders that have accomplished amazing things with limited funding, showing that investments made directly in local municipal recycling programs and at the direction of local leaders will yield the best results.
While EPR won’t solve all of our waste issues, thoughtfully-constructed EPR will provide the foundation for the development of comprehensive recycling and circular economy infrastructure in the United States. And with thoughtful incentives, companies that strive to be leaders in reducing waste, will be recognized and rewarded.
We are a country that has demonstrated that when the interest of business aligns with the interest of policy makers and local communities, we can develop infrastructure that creates massive long-term value. Thoughtfully-constructed EPR has the potential to do just that.
Ron Gonen is the CEO of Closed Loop Partners, a circular economy-focused investment firm and innovation center and author of “The Waste Free World: How the Circular Economy will Take Less, Make More, and Save the Planet.”
Originally published in The Hill.