Starbucks and Stonyfield are among the growing number of companies in the United States that are fronting some of the costs of their recycling efforts. Municipalities are cutting services due to budgets, and recycling programs are one program that can end up on the fiscal chopping block. But the trend for companies to take on recycling efforts on their own, generally described as “extended producer responsibility,” is on the rise.
Companies that once blanched at confronting the waste their products generate are now realizing that there is potential treasure in their trash. As raw materials become more expensive due to soaring energy costs and diminishing resources, that pesky problem of waste is no longer someone else’s problem.
Stonyfield, the New Hampshire-based dairy products company, has long partnered with Preserve to churn yogurt cups and #5 plastic containers into items like toothbrushes. Yogurt cups dropped off at Whole Foods can end up as toothbrushes that shoppers can buy at Trader Joe’s. Stonyfield’s quest for zero waste has not been an easy one: while many of its consumers urged the New England company to use HDPE (#2) plastic for its yogurt containers, not all municipalities incorporate #2 plastic yogurt containers into their recycling waste stream. Many of those #5 plastic cups, however, do become “upcycled” through TerraCycle’s Yogurt Brigade recycling program which raises funds for schools.
Starbucks, often criticized for the waste that its coffee drinks generate, is also experimenting with a bevy of recycling pilot programs. Cups from Chicago stores are hauled to a Green Bay, WI factory where they are processed into paper napkins for future Starbucks customers. Another initiative in Mississippi showed that used paper cups could be recycled into new cups. According to Stephanie Strom of the New York Times, however, any scaling of the project has not occurred because recyclers show little demand for used cups and communities lack an infrastructure to collect and reprocess them.
Starbucks faces other challenges. A ten cent discount for bringing one’s own cup is often not enough of an incentive for consumers, though the number who bring their own is rising. However, problems of scale remain. Even if all of the billions of paper cups were collected and processed in that Green Bay facility, the result would only be a four day supply of paper – not an enticing business proposal for most paper companies.
Even though extended producer responsibility programs in the United States are voluntary, look for them to become more popular, or even a more pragmatic option. Growing consumer interest, increasing pollution and the cost of procuring virgin materials for disposables will nudge companies to carry out a more responsible program for the waste their products generate. Such programs are already in place throughout Europe and more of Asia, Latin America and Canada.