As You Sow engages consumer packaged goods and grocery companies to take responsibility for post-consumer packaging waste, which will conserve natural resources, reduce energy use and greenhouse gas emissions and slow the toxic loading of our oceans with packaging debris.
We focus on recyclability and recycling of containers and packaging, because it is the largest single portion of the U.S. municipal waste stream, comprising nearly 30% of all waste (75 million tons), and because many of the single use applications are wasteful and not designed to align with a circular collection and recycling model.
Companies need to take a leadership role in ending the destructive and outdated 19th century "make-take-waste" model of production and replace it with a 21st century circular "closed loop" model that will conserve our increasingly scarce natural resources.
Recycling is complicated because it is regulated and funded at the state and local level. A few states have strong programs but many lack adequate resources, consumer education, and infrastructure. As a result, U.S. recycling rates are often embarrassingly low:
Less than 40% of beverage bottles and cans sold by companies like Coca-Cola, Nestle Waters NA, and Dr PepperSnapple are recycled, according to the American Beverage Association.
PET plastic from used soda and water bottles is in high demand, yet only 31% of plastic bottles are recycled.
Aluminum cans require lots of amounts of energy to produce, and are highly valued because they can be easily recycled. Yes, less than 40% of aluminum containers are recycled.
Companies need to step up and become more involved in improving recycling rates. It is their often disruptive packaging materials that create barriers to higher recycling rates. As You Sow is both challenging and working with many of the world's leading corporations to develop take back models in which producers take greater responsibility for the packaging they create by making their materials recyclable, using higher levels of recycled content, and supporting improved recycling stems both operationally and financially.
We focus on fast foods, consumer packaged goods, and beverage companies.
Fast Foods: We have engaged Chipotle, Dunkin' Brands, McDonald's, Starbucks, and YUM Brands to recycle on-site food packaging, and McDonalds' to phase out use of polystyrene foam-based packaging.
Consumer Packaged Goods: We have engaged Campbell Soup, Colgate-Palmolive, KraftHeinz, Keurig, Kroger, Mondelez International, Procter & Gamble, Unilever and Walmart to make more packaging recyclable. We have engaged Amazon and Target to phase out use of polystyrene packaging in e-commerce.
Beverage Companies: We have engaged Coca-Cola Co., PepsiCo, and Nestle Waters NA to recycle more of their bottles and cans. More detail on these efforts can be found here.
Plastic Pollution: More information on our focused efforts on plastic pollution can be found here.
Lack of adequate funding and producer inattention to designing products to maximize recyclability are two major factors in low U.S. recycling rates. If producers had more of a financial stake in recycling, they would pay more attention to design, and the financial support would increase recycling rates faster.
To deal with underfunded recycling programs, As You Sow spent several years in dialogues with General Mills, Procter & Gamble and other large consumer brands to encourage management to develop policies on responsibility for post-consumer disposition of packaged goods. We worked in partnership with Nestle Waters NA for determine whether brands would be willing to contribute to a U.S. producer responsibility system. Many other countries require companies to take partial or full financial responsibility under mandated extended producer responsibility programs (EPR). Our approach was discussed in our 2012 report Unfinished Business. The short answer is that companies generally said no to a U.S. system. However, the dialogue helped lead to incremental steps such as creation of the Closed Loop Fund, an initiative of 10 brands led by Walmart to raise $100 million for no-interest loans to cities and businesses to improve recycling infrastructure. The debate remains unresolved over the size and nature of ongoing financial support companies should provide to improve the U.S. recycling system.
Adoption of producer responsibility policies would incentivize producers to reduce the amount of packaging they create, substantially increase recycling rates, provide much needed revenue to improve efficiency of recycling systems, reduce carbon footprint and energy use, and reclaim billions of dollars of embedded value that lie buried in landfills.