It’s Time To Stop Trash Talking and Start Talking Trash

April 28, 2015

Fast-forward 20 years in the United States. Landfills are becoming obsolete. Market-based incentives have been implemented at a large and harmonized scale. Companies no longer pay for trash collection; they get paid for their trash. Waste has intrinsic value as a resource. 

This is a future where the theory of a circular economy can actually live, be real and uniquely American. But how do we get there? With a broad consensus and a willingness to engage across sectors, that’s how. We have to stop fighting over trash and start talking constructively about trash. In fact, as a society, we’re perched on the precipice of some pretty exciting possibilities if we can navigate the hazards of cross-sector collaboration.

Just a few years ago, recycling policy discussions primarily focused on bottle bills, bans, and product stewardship (paint, e-waste, etc). All have helped drive the discussion forward; bottle bill campaigns have proven that a price on packaging can drive high recycling rates, product stewardship has shown how producer responsibility can work, and bans and the threat of bans have pressured industry to the table. But, there’s still more work to do and bigger fish to fry. 

When North America’s largest bottled water company, Nestle Waters, took a daring and controversial stand by supporting Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), it inspired a handful of organizations to build support for the approach. This coalition brought new attention to the waste issue that led to robust, and sometimes painful, conversations among recycling advocates and industry.

But at some point between 2013 and early 2014, lines were drawn and groups entrenched themselves in their silos. Industry simply didn’t want to pay, NGOs couldn’t muster much interest from funders, and public attention to waste as a sustainability issue stagnated. 

However, stakeholders have recently started to move beyond this stalemate due to several factors:

Big industry players have come to the table. Two significant collaborative projects have recently developed utilizing voluntary producer responsibility (VPR): The Closed Loop Fund and The Recycling Partnership (formerly SERDC).  Both seek to engage industry in tangible solutions to end-of-life infrastructure problems. While they have slightly different approaches, it nonetheless sends a message that industry is interested in looking at waste more seriously in this country. The Closed Loop Fund, for example, seeks to drive access to 3 billion pounds of recycled plastic resin by 2020 – a roughly 30% increase. This is mainly due to Walmart’s desire to move the needle on their carbon footprint reduction goals, capturing an opportunity that many other brands are now starting to understand – the nexus between climate, products and packaging.    

NGOs are moving out of their issue silos. Coalition-building among NGOs working on marine debris, end-of-life/producer responsibility, anti-plastics and anti-consumption has drastically increased. Many of these groups, like members of the Make It, Take It Campaign, have realized that they were working towards similar goals and, by leveraging each others’ networks, can gain collective power.

Thought leaders are emerging.  This is happening across the network, helping to coalesce peers to action and providing thoughtful insights into the broader dialogue. Elisabeth Comere at Tetrapak, Matt Prindiville at UPSTREAM, Marion Hunt, Rob Kaplan at Walmart and Conrad MacKerron at As You Sow are examples, although there are dozens more leading the charge for collaborative approaches and solutions.

The question still remains: where are we going? Without a broad, consensus-driven, science-based discussion, we may wind up playing the finger-pointing game again, finding ourselves unable to emerge from our political trenches over time. These dynamics are at play in other issues like tar sands, fracking, and GMOs. While some NGOs use pressure to bring companies to the table, they can’t forget to reward them when they do; the age old “carrot and stick” approach. The environmental community also shouldn’t pursue a mantra of “ban everything, demonize every plastic.”

In turn, industry must be willing to have those hard discussions. They have to show up and participate transparently and genuinely, identifying both problems and solutions. Companies must also enter dialogues with an open ear, recognizing that their priorities often diverge from those of stakeholders. One-size-fits-all approaches to waste challenges won’t always be possible, but corporates that approach engagement as an opportunity rather than risk management are likely to find more common ground than past battles in this arena might suggest possible.

So what can you do? For companies eager to move beyond historical head butting and advance more collaborative approaches to waste management and product stewardship, now is a perfect time to engage. Here are our suggestions for how – and where – you and your organization can show up and shape the dialogue:

Get to know the stakeholder landscape. The product stewardship network can be daunting to companies unfamiliar with its dynamics and key influencers. Like many sustainability arenas, noise doesn’t always equal impact, and public posturing doesn’t always match true objectives. You need not engage every stakeholder that comes knocking, but you should have a strategy for knowing when to open the door. To help companies separate wheat from chaff, stakeholder engagement non-profit Future 500 has developed a comprehensive research package that breaks down and analyzes the hundreds of groups and opinion leaders active on recycling, packaging and waste issues in the U.S. Contact for more information.

Leverage existing frameworks and partnerships. Companies looking to improve their management of waste shouldn’t feel obligated to go it alone or reinvent the wheel. Industry and civil society alike are already aligning around several existing frameworks that offer great promise for reducing waste, advancing recycling infrastructure and healing fragile ecosystems. The aforementioned Closed Loop Fund and Recycling Partnership are open to further partners that can help drive up municipal recycling rates and recycled content feedstocks; Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas Alliance is uniting corporates like Nestle Waters and Coca-Cola with leading NGOs and academics on innovative solutions to reduce marine debris; and thought leaders like the Cradle 2 Cradle Products Innovation Institute and the Ellen Macarthur Foundation are working with companies to envision the next generation of sustainable design.

Make new friends. Words like “alliance” and “coalition” can admittedly be daunting to companies just entering the conversation or fearful of putting too many eggs in one basket. But formality need not be a deterrent to progress – in fact, informal engagement is often where the most constructive dialogues take place. Whether it’s with fellow industry members or NGO advocates, don’t be afraid to pick up the phone or grab coffee at a conference. Establishing relationships before they’re needed might require a little extra legwork, but ensures stakeholders come to you first – be it for first-mover opportunities, or to address concerns before going public.

Practice makes perfect. In the world of recycling and waste management, constant corporate sustainability one-upmanship is the new normal. Thankfully, while the bar continues to rise, so do opportunities to share best practices and safely test new ideas. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s upcoming 2015 Sustainability Forum on May 6-7 in Washington, DC is an excellent venue for both seasoned veterans and new recruits to learn tricks that can “unleash business value” through circular economy principles. The Forum is not your typical “sit-and-get” parade of speakers and experts. Instead, it takes a very hands-on approach, putting tools and techniques in the hands of participants that they can try out during the conference with the help of experts. The Foundation is also hosting a business delegation tour for executives that want to go and see circular economy and closed loop practices in action.

So what are you waiting for?