Panel Discusses End-Market Solutions for Recyclables

Panel Discusses End-Market Solutions for Recyclables
Digital Exclusive

Jason Pelz has some basic advice for brands when it comes to developing end markets for recyclables: “You have to get engaged.”

“That’s obvious, but I have to be honest, obvious doesn’t always translate into action,” says Pelz, regional vice president of sustainability at Tetra Pak, a global packaging company. “So, I would say to the brands, ‘You really need to be engaged and become knowledgeable on what’s being asked of you.’”

That tip came near the end of a 90-minute online webinar titled, “Role of Market Development in Packaging Producer Responsibility,” held June 14. It was the fifth session in a six-part series on extended producer responsibility (EPR) called “Packaging EPR Has Arrived in the U.S.—Now What?” that was developed by AMERIPEN—the American Institute for Packaging and the Environment.

Pelz was joined by Matt Flechter, recycling market development specialist at the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE), and Betsy Dorn, an associate at Circular Matters, a consulting firm whose services include helping companies with recycling strategy and market development.

Getting Involved

Various groups are working toward similar goals, so brands should make sure to network with them, Pelz says. Tetra Pak is one of four members of the Carton Council, which also includes Sig, Pactiv Evergreen, and ELOPAK to expand carton recycling in the United States and Canada.

“Reach out to technical resources, reach out to the experts, because there’s a lot of knowledge that can be tapped to make sure that what’s being devised makes sense,” Pelz says. “There’s ambition, and then there is being realistic. You don’t want to create something that is either doomed for failure or where things are set to a point where you just can’t achieve it.”

The Carton Council’s collaborations have included work with Flechter in Michigan.

EGLE and the Michigan Economic Development Corp. work to create conditions where recycling markets can thrive, Flechter says. The state deploys about $15 million annually to businesses and communities to grow recycling systems. Partnerships are important because state officials know that $15 million is not enough, he adds. Through NextCycle Michigan, stakeholders encourage public/private partnerships to attract end markets for recyclable materials.

Consider End Markets From the Start

The panelists agree that end markets should be included in plans as EPR programs are being developed. “There is no sense in collecting material where there is not a reliable market for that material,” Dorn says. “We are going to need more markets. But market development does not happen overnight. It takes time.”

End markets have always been a key focus of the Carton Council since it was formed in 2009, Pelz says. “Its strategy has been to work with all stakeholders, including material recovery facilities (MRFs), schools, and state officials,” he says. At times, end markets are obvious to a packaging company. When collaborating with stakeholders, new markets can be identified. For example, cartons are fiber-based. Stakeholders looked at who else could use fiber and determined there were markets for tissue, paper towels, writing paper, and other packaging, Pelz says. Over time, other markets, such as for building products, were identified. “More solutions are better than one,” Pelz says. “Working with others and not going alone is key.”

Take Action

Flechter advises stakeholders to move from the theoretical to action. “Let’s get down into the actual work of building markets,” he says. “The real work is done in MRFs, at the curbside designing projects, doing experimentation, putting in optical sorters, investing in projects, and then you can say, ‘Yeah, we’ve done this, and we had this result.’ So, get out of the theoretical, lace up your boots, and come to Michigan, and we’ll put some projects together for you so that you can demonstrate to your higher-ups that the investments that need to be made to grow the system are making a difference. And they’re making the difference for your brands and your customers.”

Dorn advises brands to continually analyze their material types to ensure they aren’t causing problems with the recycling streams. “There’s still a lot of work that brands can do, and I know brands hate to hear it because they want their product to be the most attractive and to be differentiated from other products,” Dorn says. “But we can do a whole lot more to have the design for recyclability and have higher value feedstock, which makes the job for market development a whole lot easier.”

Federal Involvement

In working with stakeholders to build end markets, collaboration likely is to be most effective on the local and regional level, the panelists say. They don’t expect Congress or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to take the lead.

In the 1980s, EPA was heavily involved in creating recycling markets, Dorn says. “I don’t really see them at this point getting back into that game,” Dorn says. “Maybe they will, but I haven’t seen any movement in the direction to build a robust focus on recycling markets. And I don’t even know if that makes sense because we have different markets and different barriers that need to be overcome in different states.” However, regional systems might make the most sense, Dorn adds.

Pelz says the federal government could help with harmonization by sharing knowledge of markets and what technologies work. But implementation of those solutions would make the most sense after looking at the market needs of a region. “You could come up with a whole lot of stuff, and it might not make sense for certain parts of the country,” he says.

Flechter says the biggest investments are being made on the state and local levels. “The real investments are coming from the brands, the private sector, and the waste haulers,” he says. “What that tells me is we need to double down on our efforts. We are not going to look to the federal government to come forward and solve this. I think the brands and the states need to identify what’s going to work for us and how we can grow regionally.”

More From the AMERIPEN series

For more coverage on this series, click on the following links:

Thomas A. Barstow is senior editor of FlexPack VOICE®.