Producer Responsibility: A Global Concept

While the message of recycling seems to have slipped, if not disappeared, from conventional news sources, the fact that we are still living in the mess-age was the message at an international gathering of material handling managers, packaging engineers, recycling experts and political leaders. The “Take It Back 2002” conference (organized by Raymond Communications and co-sponsored by AT&T Wireless and Environmental Packaging International) was co-located with the National Packaging and Manufacturing Trade Show.

Material handling managers in this country, whether they ship to other countries, should be aware of what is happening in Europe, Asia and South America, because our political leaders will no doubt frame legislation in this country to be compatible with the rest of the world. This conference left no doubt that on a national level the U.S. is lagging in regulation and handling of waste products. In the U.S., the control of waste management and disposal is viewed as something to be legislated at the state level. Michele Raymond, publisher, Recycling Laws International, said only 10 states are reaching their stated recycling goals. It should be noted that in the U.S. we still have no standardization on how to measure recycling progress.

For companies shipping products across state boundaries (and who doesn’t?), the maze of legislation focused on packaging waste can, or will, be daunting. It appears that following the European Union (EU) example will be our best hope.

The thing that will have the greatest impact on U.S. manufacturers will be producer-responsibility laws, now prevalent in other countries. If you ship products to Europe, your secondary and tertiary packaging material, including pallets and containers, will be subject to those waste management laws. Particularly in Europe, it’s costly to get rid of waste material. European governments are pushing the expense of disposal back to manufacturers. Currently, 30 countries have laws regulating producer responsibility for packaging and 24 countries require manufacturers to pay fees to waste collection organizations.

The conference keynote speaker was D. Grant Lawrence, director for sustainable development and policy support, European Commission (EC). Lawrence told the group of 100 attendees from a dozen countries that current EU legislation governing waste management strategy views waste (including expendable transport packaging material) as a product, not as something to be sent to a landfill as it’s typically viewed in this country.

“In the management of waste, prevention and reuse are at the top of the hierarchy,” said Lawrence, “while incineration without energy recovery and landfill are at the bottom.”

A substantial part of the framework for legislation regarding waste management, said Lawrence, is based on shipment of waste products. Proximity and self-sufficiency, meaning each country should attempt to dispose of its waste within its own frontiers, are critical to waste management.

Lawrence said there are two levels of work still required on the packaging legislation being considered by the European Commission, governing body of the EU. The first concern is definitions of packaging created in 1994 that might not be meaningful today. The second concern is recycling and recovery targets. “We need to look at these targets,” he said, “to see if they’ve been achieved and to see if we cannot go further.”

An industry point of view

Dr. Steven Anderson, technical external affairs manager-packaging, Unilever Home and Personal Care, presented a challenging view of packaging recycling. Anderson, who serves on numerous European regulatory committees, said focusing legislation on packaging waste might align with consumer perceptions, but not with reality — and not with major environmental issues.

According to Anderson, packaging engineers have been doing a good job in recent years. “The volume of packaging waste [including transport packaging material] going to final disposal has actually decreased ... by about 30 percent.”

He attributes this decline to better use of lighter-weight material that can do an equal job of protection.

How do other countries handle packaging waste take-back programs? Most participate in third-party retrieval schemes; the best-known is the Duales System Deutschland AG (DSD), Der Grüne Punkt — the Green Dot program. Dr. Fritz Flanderka, executive manager, DSD, said there are 15 countries using the Green Dot program and more than 400 billion packaging items have been labeled with the Green Dot. The Green Dot on packaging means that a fee has been paid to a packaging recovery company (third-party provider), set up in accordance with the principles defined in the European Packaging Directive and national laws. These laws and programs apply to pallets and other transport packaging material.

Can or will these programs appear in the U.S.? The Green Dot program is currently going through the licensing process in Canada where producer-responsibility legislation is a hot topic. The advice from companies already subject to these regulations is to get your house in order — now. Packaging managers must work with product designers, for example, to build more durability into a product, thus lessening the need for packaging material to protect it during shipping.

— Clyde Witt