18 May 2015
Despite past efforts to increase recycling, the recycling rate in the United States sits idle at 34%. This is a far cry from where it needs to be if circular material flows are what we're truly striving to achieve. Once a taboo topic, policy tools are increasingly being recognized as an integral component of recycling programs that achieve higher than average diversion rates.

Tetra Pak recently joined other Carton Council members in research to identify policy tools that drive increased recycling and to determine where such policies are currently in use in the United States. Following this research, we hosted a series of stakeholder events to explore the role of policy in enhancing recycling program performance and to encourage greater use of policy as a means of building recycling access and greater materials recovery.

With these conclusions in hand, the next strategy step was to select a jurisdiction that was ripe for policy action. At the time, Minnesota seemed like a good candidate. The state has not yet met its recycling goals, has successfully implemented policies in past years, and has relatively strong recycling markets.

Furthermore, some of the stakeholders in Minnesota expressed specific interest in pursuing a recyclable materials disposal ban as a policy complement to existing MN programs and policies.

In collaboration with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and AMERIPEN, the Carton Council hosted a meeting to gauge stakeholder support for the ban. My specific role was to co-chair this meeting as the Carton Council’s policy team leader and to convey why we are seeking to advance the use of recycling policies in the United States and Minnesota in particular. The meeting was well attended and the discussion was heated. However, stakeholder opposition was much stronger than expected. I left the meeting with the realization that, even in a state as progressive as Minnesota, the process of obtaining support and moving forward with policy adoption is fraught with challenge and requires a series of "baby steps" to reach success. 

My experience in seeking to advance recycling policy to date has resulted in the following conclusions that I offer below so that others may learn from our experience:
  1. States and communities that have ambitious recycling targets and sound recycling markets are the best starting point for policy discussions. Policy can help these jurisdictions achieve their recycling goals when markets for recovered materials are available.
  2. Waste reduction and recycling policies need to be framed within the context of economic value-add and job creation. Without these hooks, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to get constituencies on board.
  3. To succeed in implementing good policy and to build consistency across jurisdictions, model policy language is needed that then can be tailored to specific jurisdictions.
  4. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. What makes sense will be a blend of programmatic and policy strategies that fit the unique circumstances of each jurisdiction.
  5. Funding is key. The successful implementation of policy measures requires some source of funding. Policy itself can play a role in creating those mechanisms.
  6. Attempting to limit stakeholder participation to an invited group does not work; those not invited will feel shut out of the process and often show up anyway. It is best to keep stakeholder meetings broad and open and provide multiple up-front "listening" opportunities.
  7. Any type of new policy will always be met with opposition from some stakeholder groups. Even future supporters may initially be in opposition because certain details ("the devil" being in the details) are yet to be defined.
  8. Consideration of any new policy is a learning process for all involved as various stakeholders share their perspectives and the implications of the policy are fleshed out via group discussion. This type of iterative learning takes time so start early and plan accordingly. There are no corners to be cut here.
  9. A local champion is needed. It is very challenging for a national organization to introduce a policy initiative in a specific state; a local influential organization will be more effective at creating buy-in.
  10. Participation by national trade associations and companies in state-specific meetings may not be appreciated by local counterparts. However, because policy consistency across states is desirable, national associations and corporations need to play a facilitative and instructive role with respect to new policy developments and need to align with their local counter-parts (or sister organizations).
  11. Some stakeholders may simply regard any policy to be a form of government intervention and will oppose recycling policies simply on principle.
  12. Policy making is a long-term process. Advocating for recycling policy and for change takes time. In this context, initiatives such as the Recycling Partnership and the Closed Loop Fund make even more sense to prepare the ground and develop the necessary recycling infrastructure while waiting for the right policy to be adopted.

Building engagement in the policy space is a complex exercise. It won’t occur if the various parties at the table do not share the same vision. Over the last few months, we have seen positive alignment to help bring about substantial increases in the recycling of used packaging. Keeping valuable materials out of the waste stream is what we are all collectively striving for. If a common vision indeed exists, industry, including the waste management industry, needs to step up to the plate, promote relevant state policy tools and lead the dialogue with key stakeholders. We cannot succeed by doing this alone, and we are ready to join others in leading the charge ahead!

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