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My Thoughts on “Waste and Opportunity 2015”

It’s not often a report is produced that focuses so heavily on foodservice packaging – and yet was not produced by the Foodservice Packaging Institute. But, indeed, that’s the case with the latest “Waste and Opportunity 2015: Environmental Progress and Challenges in Food, Beverage and Consumer Goods Packaging” from As You Sow and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

We were asked for a quote on the report by media soon after it was released last week, and while we did provide a short comment, I can’t help but share some more detailed thoughts in this week’s blog post.

·        Thanks for the promotion of the PRA and PRG! In general, I was pleased that FPI’s Paper Recovery Alliance (PRA) and Plastics Recovery Group (PRG) were recognized for their hard work. The PRA and PRG should be commended for their efforts related to end markets, food contamination and acceptance of foodservice packaging by MRFs.

·        Sorry, but As You Sow cannot take credit for the PRA and PRG. I have to say it irritated me to read “In 2011, due to pressure from Starbucks as well as from groups like As You Sow, the Foodservice Packaging Institute, an industry trade association with many QSR members, formed a Paper Recovery Alliance and a Plastics Recovery Group to explore supporting or developing scaled solutions for recycling and processing of food service packaging.” Let’s be clear: As You Sow had nothing to do with the PRA and PRG being formed. The PRA and PRG were formed because our members (predominantly the packaging converters and their raw material suppliers) came to us and asked that we facilitate the formation of these groups. The work of the PRA and PRG has always been driven by the needs and interests of our industry – not outsiders trying to influence an industry they know little about.

·        Yes, there are real and perceived barriers to increasing recycling and composting. The report rightly points out that “more food service packaging can be accommodated by recyclers than previously thought.” Based on the work of the PRA and PRG, we know that more can be recycled, so work will be done this year to help debunk that myth. Another truth in the report is “commercial composting infrastructure that can handle these items is not yet in place in many locations.” Agreed, and that’s another area of PRA/PRG work for 2015 (see my blog post from last week).

·        Sorry, but foodservice packaging is not a “substantial” or “enormous” part of the waste stream. Grrr….The report states that “Our strongest focus is on the QSR sector because of the substantial waste associated with a business model in which food is most often taken off-premises in single-use containers.” It goes on to read “This report focuses on three business sectors that put enormous amounts of consumer packaging into the market: quick service restaurants, beverage companies, and consumer goods/grocery companies.” The author rightly points to the latest U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data that shows that roughly 2.3 million tons of paper and plastic foodservice packaging was generated, but what the report fails to mention is that figure equals 0.9 percent of the total material in the municipal waste stream. ZERO POINT NINE! On what planet is that “substantial” or “enormous?” Perhaps the author should have just stuck with this statement, also found in the report “We chose to emphasize QSRs because of the visibility of their waste in everyday commerce...”. That, we cannot argue with.

·        It’s not just the packaging, but the people, too. The author would lead you to believe that changes to packaging and the recovery infrastructure would address environmental challenges, but one critical piece missing in the report is the vital role of the consumer. The packaging industry and the many stakeholders can do their share to increase recovery, but until the customer decides to place the package in the recycling or composting bin, we have done everything for naught. Want an example? Consider PET packaging. According to the report, “Some 94 percent of the U.S. population currently has access to PET recycling” and yet “just 24 percent of all PET containers are recycled.” Why is that? I have to believe part of the reason – perhaps a very large part – is that consumers simply aren’t choosing to recycle it. Consumer education and engagement is an important issue for all of us, and certainly something that the PRA and PRG will be addressing.

·        Let’s decouple recovery and litter. Recovery and litter are two separate issues and should be treated as such. There is no relationship between the two. Bottles and cans, for example, have high recycling rates, and yet they also have high litter rates. The demographics of folks who recycle and those who litter are very different, and if we acknowledge that consumer education and engagement is critical, we must understand that there are very different messages to these audiences. Let’s address one challenge at a time, and this report should have stuck to the recovery challenge and not brought litter in to the argument.

·        Packaging should be put into context. I recognize that the focus of this report was packaging, but in the real world, packaging is a very small part of the foodservice operators’ daily lives. I’d like to believe that packaging is just as important to them as it is to those of us in the foodservice packaging industry, but the reality is that packaging is often an afterthought. Based on numerous FPI surveys, we know that operators want packaging that performs well and is cost-effective. It’s no surprise to me that packaging is not getting the attention that the author would like from foodservice brands. But perhaps this report will change that.


Posted By Lynn M. Dyer (President) | 2/3/2015 10:34:30 AM