NERC started its second day of great content, speakers and discussions with a talk on “Demystifying Compostable Packaging”, a panel moderated by Debra Darby, Manager of Organics Sustainability Solutions at Tetra Tech. Olga Kachook, Senior Manager at Sustainable Packaging Coalition kicked off the panel speaking on understanding the role of compostable packaging in a circular bioeconomy. She said there are two loops in the circular economy: the loop for recycling and the biological loop that includes food waste (which is being sent to landfills). She pointed out that we need to reuse food waste as part of biological cycle and compostable packaging is best strategy for that. The value of compostable packaging is that it captures and diverts food waste, simplifies customer experience, it is a solution for non-recyclable packaging, supplements carbon sources in the composting process, and supports biological cycles of the circular economy.

In looking at compostable packaging, the #1 question is do we have the infrastructure and most assume that it this type of processing does not take place in the U.S. However, there are a growing number of facilities that accept some kind of food waste and compostable packaging. The situation is not as black and white as some may think. There are composting programs in the U.S. Within the 1,000 largest cities, 10% of the top U.S. cities have a municipal curbside composting program, 21% have a privately run curbside composting program, 16% have food waste only compostable programs, and 19% have food waste and compostable packaging programs.

Next Nora Goldstein, Editor at BioCycle CONNECT, spoke on the fact that while there has been more diversion of food waste and collection, there has been concern about contamination and this falls into three general areas: 1) Contamination primarily from the lookalike products that end up in the same stream as the food scraps, 2) Breakdown of products at composting facilities, and 3) Organic Agriculture – if you have compost that is certified as organic, a state board still may not consider compostable packaging, they would consider it a synthetic, so that could be a drawback. She said they had held a series of workshops with composters, municipalities, operators and municipalities that started with surveys and interviews in order to come out with a roadmap that Biogradeable Products Institute would put forth. Through the process of the workshop, certain barriers became clear that would have to be addressed in order to get to the end results. They included value proposition uncertainty, contamination (labeling and education guidelines), infrastructure funding – help create capacities for composters (like an EPR combined with public financing grants), and compostability standards.

Carla Castagnero, President of Agrecycle then talked about how the company has been accepting food waste since 1998 and accepting compostable products since 2004. As a private company in Western Pennsylvania, they operate in the most landfill friendly state in the U.S. with Western Pennsylvania in the bottom 20% in landfill tipping fees. Pennsylvania also has the fewest bans regarding things that can go to landfills. All of their customers that divert food waste and compostable packaging do this voluntarily. A key element is that Agrecycle, unlike most composting companies, has always made 100% of profits selling compost to high end markets. If the material in any way is de-valued during the composting process/compost, they will not take the material. Agrecycle only accepts certified compostable packaging. The company understands that diverting food waste and providing composting affects climate change and they help divert as much to composting as possible. She says their philosophy is ‘why not try this?’ as opposed to ‘why would I try this?’

The next panel explored interest in refillables. Moderated by Michael Noel, Government Affairs and Advocacy Manager for TOMRA, the session featured first a discussion on Germany’s refillable bottle system from Tobias Bielenstein, Chief Operating Officer of the Refillable Working Group Germany. He said that while a refillable bottle program has existed in Germany for a couple of decades, there has been renewed interest in the country. The Refillable Working Group is a joint organization of 8 associations and manages the refillable logo, think tank and information point about refillables. Characteristics of German market are that there are many regional/local producers, beverages are sold in crates, and there is a rich diverse and specialized retail structure for beverages (3,500 gross retailers, 12,000+ specialized beverage retailers, 150,000 green jobs). He said that the taxonomy of (German) beverage containers, covers questions like type of beverage/branding, looks at customers and consumer preferences, strategies, economic and environmental efficiency costs, quality, etc. Typical issues include: Beer in PET is not allowed, most discounters won’t list reuse, glass associated with high-quality (branding), etc. He also discussed the purpose of pool management, which is a legal framework for all bottlers, provides balanced input and covers responsibility of all bottlers, fair sharing of benefits and duties, clearing activities, market analysis, which results in system that has immanent advantages of pool packages. Bielenstein pointed out that we are the referee – we need to have clear rules and a system that is accessible for the companies using it. The German Refillable System is a decentralized structure and a combination of self-interest, experience and established traditional structures. The market share of refillables as of 2018 is beer 79.5%, mineral water 39.1%, soft drinks 26.5%. Current tasks and challenges include the stop loss of market share in PET-Reuse, raise rPET share (especially with clear PET-Reuse bottles), becoming Carbon Neutral is a 10-year project, and they are starting new Pool-Reuse Systems for food.

Jules Bailey, Chief Stewardship Officer for the Oregon Beverage Recycling Cooperative spoke about Oregon’s refillable bottle system. The Cooperative is a statewide non-profit organization that handles all aspects of Oregon deposit and return system. Oregon’s Bottle Bill is run by distributors, but retailers have to take back containers unless they have a bottle drop system at their location. The redemption program started in 1971 at 5 cents, and in 2017, it increased to 10 cents for deposit. In 2016, the reusable bottle planning began and in 2018 there was an expansion in the program and a huge increase in container volume due to the reusable program launching and redemption going from 5 cents to 10 cents. As a result, redemption rates went from 64% to more than 82%. 76% of returns go through bottle drops, 10% through grocery stores and the remainder goes through other retailers. There have been 16 participating breweries, cideries and wineries so far with about 1.5 million units in circulation.

Bailey covered what makes a refill program work. He pointed out that economics matter. There must be efficient collection and centralization of bottles, standardization of bottle types, centralizing the washer and distributor allows for the bottle to be treated as a capital asset and the more turns a bottle gets and the more sold, the lower the cost for all participants. Currently, bottles are only getting two to three turns but there is potential to get 25 more; they are also limited to SKUs with 25% or less out-of-state distribution, there are no crates in the U.S. beer system, but it would improve return experience. He also pointed out that technology makes it work because refillable bottles are recognized by RVMs and rejected for hand count, bottles are designed for future shape recognition, and with volume and capital investment, technology could greatly reduce handling. He also stressed that quality is everything. There needs to be an inspection of every bottle post-wash and an additional swab to ensure cleanliness. Bottle washing machines can easily handle foreign contaminants like cigarettes, limes and even syringes. Finally, he explained that some of the challenges to growth are cans, especially since there is shift in packaging to cans and away from glass, as well as the program being limited to craft producers in Oregon and wine not being included on the Oregon Bottle Bill. He also stressed don’t underestimate the challenges of labels.

Finally Caren McNamara, Founder/CEO, Conscious Container discussed the company goals, which is working to bring refillable bottles into the U.S. economy and providing a framework to provide refillable systems across the nation. Conscious Container sells, collects, washes and resells refillable glass beverage bottle, enables smart packaging with QR code technology, and provides recycled content for new glass bottles.  Working with beer, wine and non-alcoholic beverage producers, McNamara explains that in building a refillable system due diligence is really important, equipment and infrastructures is key, the need for refillable bottles, financial models and customers (which are the beverage producers since they are the ones buying the bottles), policies, and a team helping to move all of this forward. Key components to this included research, proof of concept, existing infrastructures to tap into, impact and marketplace data, regional and non-profit partners as well as industry partners. Equipment and infrastructures needed include bottle washer, bottle inspector, facility design and system, refillable bottles, wash-off labels, recycling/waste systems, technology and innovation. Financial models should look at volume based business, beverage categories, the investor lens, value proposition, partners, and sustainability targets. Team and policy covers support, expertise, vision, mission, values, new marketplace, legislation and grants. She pointed out that AB 962 – Returnable Beverage Bottles – is an active piece of legislation in California. Moving forward, we need to look at capital, strategic partners, existing infrastructures, technology and innovation, value propositions (how do we get people engaged?) and collaboration (working together to get this off the ground).

The final panel of the day (and conference) focused on U.S. EPR program updates in the areas of mattress, paint and electronics. It featured Marie Clarke, VP of Policy and Government Affairs for the Mattress Recycling Council, Laura Honis, Connecticut and Rhode Island Programs Manager and John Hurd, Vermont and Maine Program Manager for PaintCare, and Jason Linnell, Executive Director of the National Center for Electronics Recycling (NCER).

Clarke first spoke about the International Sleep Products Association, which is the trade association for the mattress industry. The Mattress Recycling Council was founded in 2013, which was created to lead the way in mattress recycling. She covered what happens to the recycled materials from the mattress. For example, the foam padding is turned into carpet underlayment or animal bed padding, the cotton used in industrial oil filters and other textile applications, the wooden frames are shredded to produce landscaping mulch or burned as an alternative fuel source, and the steel springs are recycled as metal scrap or used to make new appliances and building materials. She said recycling challenges are that used mattresses are bulky and durable, have low/volatile value, and scrap revenue is insufficient to fund collecting/dismantling mattresses. Industry obligations are to administer statewide mattress recycling programs with the fee collected at retail, and a big part of the program is education and outreach. For their collection network, the Mattress Recycling Council uses existing collection methods as well as other options to drop off at designated location, collection events, and work with large volume users (hotels, dorms, etc.). The programs have been implemented in Connecticut, California, and Rhode Island. There is legislation in Massachusetts, Minnesota, Maryland, Oregon and Maine and there is a stakeholder interest in New York and Washington DC. So far, 8 million mattresses have been recycled and 300 million pounds of material diverted from landfills.

Laura Honis John Hurd discussed the origin of PaintCare, which came about in 2009. In 2003, government agencies, paint manufacturers, recyclers, environmental groups, the American Coatings Association (ACA) and others collaborated to develop a better solution for managing post-consumer paint. Through the ACA, PaintCare was created. In the states that have passed legislation, through the program, manufacturers report sales and pay the fee to PaintCare. The fee covers the cost of paint management, outreach and management in that state. Fees vary from state to state. PaintCare partners with paint retailers, hardware stores, lumber yards, HHW facilities and events, and transfer stations. The program is free for transfer stations and the organization also holds one day collection events and provides large volume pickup for anyone who has accumulated 200 gallons or more. Currently, the total gallons processed in the NE is 3,940,110.

COVID has had an impact on the programs through stay at home orders, retail sites going to curbside operations and the suspension of recycling operations and HHW events and collection. In addition, Spring outreach in 2020 was halted. They mentioned that New York passed a law in 2019 and the next states with legislation include New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Maryland. There are also bill introductions imminent in Illinois.

Finally, Jason Linnell talked about the National Center for Electronics Recycling, which is dedicated to the development and enhancement of infrastructure for the recycling of used electronics in the U.S. They are involved in federal, state and association projects, conduct research and run collection programs. There are currently 24 states (and DC) program laws. They started in California in 2003 and stopped with DC in 2014. From 2015 to 2020, there have been none. Linnell discussed the main ways that state law have differed: #1) Covered Products include at least monitors and laptops and may have TVs, computers, printers, keyboards, mice, small servers, personal audio, mobile phones, VCR/DVD, DVRs, Cable/Satellite boxes and 3D printers; 2) Covered Entities – who can use the (free) recycling system? It does cover households/consumers, then it varies on small business, schools, non-profit organizations, government agencies and large businesses; and 3) Program Funding – manufacturer fee – 2 states, manufacturer market share – 12 states, manufacturer return share and market share – 2 states, manufacturer clearinghouse and market share within return product categories – 1 state and 8 states have no financing specified but manufacturers run their own programs. Linnell also covered how electronics laws were different. There has been a patchwork of laws and approaches developed over several years and there is no industry recycling organization managing a single program. In addition, besides California’s agency collected fee, there are no fees on products, rather manufacturers pay recyclers directly through management organizations or to the states. Lastly, he talked about the key challenges including determining what products should be covered and how can programs adapt, how to balance equity and costs for manufacturers, collectors and recyclers. There has also been a multi-year challenge of CRT glass and markets – they are declining but still the dominant weight is from households; in addition, as downstream markets change, some recyclers are left with stockpiles. There have also been no new state laws since 2011.

NERC thanks the sponsors, supporters, board members, speakers and attendees for their help in putting this great conference together. It was another valuable and dynamic event with many opportunities for networking for all of those who participated, and we hope to see everyone in person in the Fall (October 12 – 13)!

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