The Race to Recycle

By now, most consumers and retailers understand and approve of the idea of recycling. They’ve heard about carbon footprint and composting and other buzzwords with environmentally-friendly connotations. In 2011, Americans recycled about 35 percent of trash, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). That’s not a number to scoff at, but it’s also a number that many key figures in the sustainability business believe should rise.

It’s also become a goal of those in the manufacturing business, as well. It’s a belief that has been embedded in the missions of groups such as the Carton Council of North America, Ball Corporation, the Can Manufacturers Institute and the Glass Packaging Institute. These groups, to name a few, have established concrete goals of raising their respective packaging format’s recycling rates. They say they’re making progress through various forms of education, production refinement and infrastructural improvements. They know that recycling and waste reduction have become imperatives at many points along the journey to the shelf.

“I think the landscape has changed a little bit,”  said Elisabeth Comere, the director of environment and government affairs for the U.S. and Canada divisions of Tetra Pak, a carton packaging company. “You have much greener requirements from our supply chains.”

And those supply chains are sizeable. According to MarketsandMarkets, a global market research and consulting company, the beverage packaging market will grow from an estimated $97.2 billion in 2012 to $125.7 billion by 2018.

So it should come as a relief that the companies that comprise these industries, which make metal, plastic, carton and plastic packaging, among others, say they believe in not just sustainable packaging, but also in sustainable education for consumers and brands. But there’s a complex web, and it incorporates political and social behaviors, consumer education and local action to create more recycling opportunities.

“There is not a one size fits all solution,” said Bjoern Kullman, director of sustainability at Ball Corporation, a leading supplier of metal packaging.

Kullman said that while Ball continues to work with suppliers to improve the efficiency of their processes, more work can be done. In 2013, 65.1 percent of cans have been recycled. He said that by 2015, people in the industry want that number to reach 75 percent.

He thinks that this number could be reached because of the compatibility of cans with the sustainability movement. According to numbers presented by Ball, cans are the most recycled beverage container in the world. They’re 100 percent recyclable and can be recycled and returned to a store shelf as a new can in 60 days.

According to Megan Daum, the vice president of sustainability at the Can Manufacturers Institute, cans have become 15 percent lighter over the previous two decades. She said that about 34 cans can be made from one pound of aluminum and that a can’s wall is about .0037 inches, or the thickness of a strand of hair. She also said that each recycled can greatly reduces the energy and carbon footprint of the next can.

“We like to think about the environmental and economic benefits being tied together,” Daum said.

That’s one of Daum’s key points as she continues to travel, educating students and companies across the country. From March 2012 to last July, she’s spoken at the Sustainability in Packaging conference, the Innovations in Food & Beverage Conference by Packaging Digest, a beverage industry webinar, Interbev, and the Greener Package podcast, among others. She also has spoken to students with a focus on sustainability at Michigan State University and Virginia Tech.

In her speeches, she continues to explain that while cans are highly recyclable and have shown some of the most encouraging recycling rates of any beverage container medium, all packaging forms remain in this fight together.

Some are further along than others, however:

Like cans, glass packaging is 100 percent recyclable and can be recycled endlessly without loss in quality or purity*, according to the Glass Packaging Institute (GPI), the trade association representing the North American glass container industry.

In 2011, according to the EPA, more than 41 percent of beer and soft drink bottles, nearly 34 percent of wine and liquor bottles and 15 percent of food and other glass jars were recycled. In sum, 34.2 percent of glass containers were recycled.

The numbers from plastic packaging show even more room to grow. A 2011 study by Moore Recycling Associates Inc. found that 94 percent of Americans have access to plastic bottle recycling and 40 percent of the population can also recycle other types of plastic containers like yogurt cups, dairy tubs and lids. Despite this fact, the American Chemistry Council found that in 2011, only 29 percent of plastic bottles were recycled.

The picture is even more complex for paper-based containers.

Tetra Pak, a carton packaging company, is approaching sustainability through product innovation. The company’s cartons, which are made with renewable paperboard or thin layers of polyethylene, a common plastic, combine strength, light weight and shape to form a product with a continually descending carbon footprint.

Comere said that Tetra Pak’s cartons are currently made with 70 to 75 percent renewable sources. She said that by 2020, the company aims for cartons that are 100 percent renewable.

But the problem for Tetra Pak has been getting communities on board for its kind of package. Tetra Pak’s website says that in 2012, the global recycling rate for used beverage cartons was 22.9 percent. The company wants to increase that number to 40 percent by 2020. Some countries have bought into the idea: Luxembourg and Belgium have recycling rates of more than 80 percent. Germany is above 70 percent.

Like Ball and the CMI, Tetra Pak hopes that cooperation from inside its own industry can help improve results. The Carton Council, established in 2009, is a group of carton manufacturers (including Tetra Pak) that delivers long-term solutions to divert cartons from landfills and promotes recycling technology and local collection programs. Through the council’s website, visitors can scan the country for carton recycling locations, watch instructional videos and read about the carton recycling process.

What’s obvious is that sustainability operations aren’t the only way to increase the recycling rate. Some in the packaging industry believe that an improvement in the recycling infrastructure could go a long way toward making progress.

“We primarily focus on infrastructure,” Kullman said. “Studies for the last 15 or so years have shown that if we use 94 gallon carts instead of 18 gallon bins, people recycle more.”

Daum said the issue isn’t curbside opportunities, but public ones, as well: if enough people know where they can recycle and that there simply aren’t enough places away from home that allow people to recycle. With the growing popularity of portable containers, the beverage industry is complying more and more with the on-the-go nature of consumers. Daum, and others like her, believe that recycling needs to catch up to this fact.

She used parks as an example: If you’re walking in the park with an empty, recyclable container, and you approach a trash can, it’s likely you’d prefer throwing out the container over waiting until you reach the next recycling bin, she said. If consumers have a better understanding of why they should wait for a recycling bin and local governments prioritize the proliferation of recycling bins, she believes that the recycling rate could significantly increase.

Kullman said that for these numbers to rise, representatives of all packaging forms must work together to better inform consumers, beverage suppliers and distributors, to name a few.

“We have a more holistic approach today to be more effective,” Kullman said.

Comere said that she thinks beverage brands are also responsible for stepping up and delivering a message of sustainability.

“People don’t buy a carton,” Comere said. “They buy a specific drink in a carton.”

When these companies do take more responsibility in delivering a message of sustainability, through marketing or on the package, and as environmental education continues to spread throughout the country, and local governments use their resources to make more of an effort, perhaps then the majority of consumers will do more than just understand the benefits of recycling; they’ll take action.

*An earlier version of this story indicated that, according to the Glass Packaging Institute (GPI), only glass can be recycled endlessly without loss in quality or purity. Despite the GPI’s claim, the story has been revised to include cans.