Can companies push the government out of the trash business?

By Benjamin Hulac | 01/30/2015 08:17 AM EST

Major American companies in the food, beverage and consumer goods sectors are wasting resources, energy and money with inefficient packaging and recycling practices, missing a secondary market worth an estimated $11.4 billion every year, according to a survey published yesterday.

A joint effort from As You Sow, the Oakland-headquartered nonprofit group advocating corporate environmental sustainability, and the National Resources Defense Council, the report polled 47 high-profile U.S. brands, identifying their leading and lagging recycling practices.

"We found that most leading U.S. fast food, beverage, and packaged goods [companies] are coming up significantly short of where they should be when it comes to the environmental aspects of packaging," said Conrad MacKerron, the report author, in a statement. "These companies have not sufficiently prioritized packaging source reduction, recyclability, compostability, recycled content and recycling policies."

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A stronger emphasis on package recycling from U.S. corporations throughout their supply chains, MacKerron said, would increase how much Americans recycle, stem plastic debris that ends up in oceans and other bodies of water and create "new green recycling jobs."

The analysis graded companies across all three sectors on "source reduction," the term used when firms switch to reusable packages or products with less material; "recycled content," such as a coffee cup or plastic fork that has been made out of previously used material; "recyclability and materials use," which denotes how easily items can be recycled; and the brands’ efforts to boost recycling for employees and customers.

Starbucks and McDonald’s score high

Starbucks percolated its way to the top of the food sector rankings, edging out McDonald’s. They are the leading companies that have adopted "better practices" within the fast-food, or quick-service restaurant (QSR), sector, the report concluded.

Dunkin Brands Group Inc, along with Subway, Chick-fil-A, Chipotle, Panera Brands and Yum! Brands Inc. — the parent company of Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and KFC — all scored middling "needs improvement" marks, while McDonald’s rival fast-food chains Burger King, Wendy’s, Arby’s and Jack in the Box all scored in the lowest category, though those companies disclosed little detail on their recycling management to the authors.

"No company attained our highest level of assessment," said MacKerron in a call with reporters. Leading firms are not taking ownership of their what happens to their packaging products downstream, he said, noting that debris from fast-food restaurants damages marine ecosystems and chokes off rivers and streams.

"We think it’s a particularly concern because of the contribution to the oceans," he said.

In 2008, Starbucks pledged to sell a quarter of its drinks worldwide in reusable mugs by 2015 but has since reduced that goal to 5 percent by the end of this year. "They’re there, but you have to ask for them," MacKerron said of the non-paper mugs.

Thirty-three percent of the material McDonald’s uses for its sandwich and hamburger boxes comes from already-used materials.

New Belgium and Coca-Cola outscore Red Bull

Within the beverage industry, New Belgium, the beer company based in Fort Collins, Colo., Coca-Cola, Nestle Waters NA and PepsiCo comprised the top-rated group among beverage makers, while Heineken, MillerCoors, Boston Beer and Red Bull were laggards, the report found.

Because they hadn’t analyzed consumer good companies before, the authors generated a broader assessment for the sector without doling out grades.

"In terms of packaging, Wal-Mart has done some audacious things," MacKerron said, citing the big-box retailer’s ambitious goal to increase its use of recycled plastic for packaging by 3 billion pounds before 2021. If Wal-Mart completes that task, MacKerron added, it "could create a market in post-consumer plastics" on its own.

Americans created about 251 million tons of trash in 2012, the most recent year with available data from the U.S. EPA, and either recycled or composted 34.5 percent of that material.

That figure significantly trails other wealthy nations such as France (64.9 percent), Germany (71.3 percent) and Belgium (80.3 percent), according to the 2012 data. But the U.S. overall rate of recycling has improved steadily since 1990, when Americans recycled 16 percent of the waste they discarded.

"We think producer responsibility should be the norm in the United States," said MacKerron. Extended producer responsibility laws require companies to take at least partial responsibility for what happens to their products at the ends of their lives, instead of leaving that task to the public and local governments.

Darby Hoover, a senior resource specialist at NRDC, said the United States continues to lag behind other developed nations in its recycling track record.

Burying landfills in black plastic

"We’re recycling less than 14 percent of our plastic," Hoover said. U.S. consumers recycle other materials at a much higher rate; they recycle about 75 percent of paper and cardboard, just more than 70 percent of steel, and about 38 and 34 percent of aluminum and glass packaging, respectively.

In recent years, multinational corporations have become increasingly aware of their exposure to the impacts of climate change — without clean water, software manufacturers would struggle to produce computer chips while construction, shipping and heavy manufacturing sectors are sharply reliant upon steady supplies of commodities, like aluminum, petroleum and steel — and large companies are increasingly submitting information about their climate exposure to the Carbon Disclosure Project, Ceres and comparable groups.

To address some of their easiest recycling issues, Hoover said, companies can "start back-of-house recycling for QSRs" and "avoid problem packaging, such as polystyrene foam," which is commonly called Styrofoam.

Black plastic is another pressing concern. Many sorting machines at recycling depots, MacKerron said, cannot detect black-colored plastic containers, which prohibits the sorting teams from putting materials in their proper places and EPA from tracking how much black plastic is being discarded by consumers.

Pret a Manger, the casual sandwich shop, earned a gold star, too. The company is the only chain that offers composting and recycling in the front of all of its branches, MacKerron said.

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