Does anybody remember Earth Day?

Getty Images/Halfpoint
Apr 21, 2020

Tomorrow will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the very first Earth Day. The realities of social distancing rules and stay-at-home orders as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic will make this year’s event unlike any in history.

The official Earth Day site is calling on people from all over the world to join in a wide range of digital events. The site makes the point that nations may have been unprepared for the novel coronavirus, but there is still time to prepare for the climate crisis that is growing daily.

If we don’t demand change to transform our planet and meet our climate crisis, our current state will become the new normal — a world where pandemics and extreme weather events span the globe, leaving already marginalized and vulnerable communities even more at risk.”

In preparation for Earth Day, the Consumer Brands Association has released its policy platform for a nationally or regionally standardized recycling program.

“With nearly 10,000 programs and unique sets of rules complicating America’s recycling system today, we have created an unsustainable morass that confuses consumers and drastically increases contamination,” Meghan Stasz, vice president, packaging and sustainability, Consumer Brands Association, said in a statement. “Our industry is building on its decades of global experience in policy and smarter packaging to provide a blueprint for the type of functioning recycling system that consumers and the environment deserve.”

The industry group points to already low recycling rates and “global market forces” that will likely result in more waste. Part of its solution, the group maintains, is to replace the current system for regulating recycling with a “market-based” system that is simpler for consumers to understand and which will, in turn, improve participation rates.

“Recycling is not the final or only solution to our packaging challenges, but without a functioning recycling system, there is no second life for valuable material — it’s just trash, or worse, pollution,” said Ms. Stasz.

An article from last August on the Earth Day site argues that if we continue to produce single-use plastics at the current rate, we will never rid ourselves of the problem. After decades of recycling efforts, there is more waste than ever before. The solution is to limit the use of plastics to only areas where it is absolutely necessary, such as in medical supplies, and “a few types of food packaging.” Even in these cases, only “the most highly recyclable plastics” should be used.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What is your assessment of the Consumer Brands Association’s proposal for a standardized recycling program? What actions would you like to see from the consumer goods and retailing industries in support of Earth Day principles?

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"What Earth Day needs is an advocate and a solid support campaign. The CBA should take a leadership position and make Earth Day relevant and sustainable."

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10 Comments on "Does anybody remember Earth Day?"

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Bob Amster

Manufacturers and retailers can do their part to improve the environment and have a significant positive impact. However, individuals have to want to participate and some don’t. As some seldom-seen wildlife is returning to reclaim some of its territory, left open due to to the pandemic, some will see the beauty in the change and join in the recycling effort.

Jeff Weidauer

What Earth Day needs is an advocate and a solid support campaign. The CBA should take a leadership position and make Earth Day relevant and sustainable. That’s more than just a recycling message. Recycling is fine, but how about not producing as much to start, and reusing what’s been made? We’ve all been told to recycle but the markets for recycled materials have dried up. CBA has an opportunity to stand up and stand out – let’s hope they do more than just put out a green bin.

Kevin Graff

Do you get the feeling that Mother Nature has sent us to our room to think about what we’ve done to the world? Take a look at how the Earth is healing during this pandemic. Pollution levels have plunged. The Venice canals are clear. Wildlife is returning. Heck, if you can’t get recycling right, how are you going to heal the world? This isn’t that hard people. It just needs some solid leadership for a change, and a little less money worship.

Keith Anderson
The last 24 months have provided a quick education on some natural, physical realities that can’t be managed long-term through denial or deferral. Thirty years ago, when I first had any consciousness of ecological issues, the framing was largely about resource scarcity in a macro sense and the nuisance of litter on an individual level. Renewable energy versus dwindling supplies of extractive fuels; personal responsibility at the last touch of a product’s lifecycle. Today, we have a much better understanding of the scale and magnitude of the negative impacts of packaging waste and pollution on health, wildlife, and ecosystems. Recycling standards, infrastructure, and incentives are necessary–but so are extended producer responsibility, circularity, and a focused effort to reduce single-use products and packaging that can’t biodegrade or be composted. I see progress on all of these fronts, and I hope the industry aligns and executes quickly. Perhaps even more importantly, I see promising signs of the retail and consumer products industries rising to the greater challenges presented by the climate crisis through initiatives like reducing energy… Read more »
David Naumann
David Naumann
Marketing Strategy Lead - Retail, Travel & Distribution, Verizon
2 years 27 days ago

A standardized recycling program is a good step, but we need a comprehensive global compliance program to take this seriously. As noted on the website: “Contrary to the popular narrative, the real solution shouldn’t be recycling. It’s time to focus on the other two Rs in the trinity of waste management: reducing and reusing.”

One of the biggest problems with recycling is that even with good intentions from consumers, many recycling bins end up in landfills. Eliminating or drastically reducing one-time use containers and reducing the size of plastic containers that are “essential” is a good step, but we need compliance.

Unfortunately, because of the coronavirus pandemic, Earth Day will not get the attention it deserves this year.

Kathy Kimple

While stay at home orders certainly reduced pollution, the virus also forced retailers to suspend some of the environmentally-friendly policies they had adopted. Many coffee merchants, for example, have stopped refilling consumer-owned mugs and have gone back to paper and plastic takeout containers for all. Trader Joe’s, for example, went to a policy that forbids consumers from using their own bags to shop or to pack groceries at checkout. Consumers who don’t want to take a new paper bag from Trader Joe’s now need to put the goods back into their cart, take the cart outside the store and repack in their own bags.

Going forward, retailers are going to have to balance “green” activities against public health requirements.

Patricia Vekich Waldron

Clarifying and publishing recycling guidelines will go a long way towards increased awareness, compliance and efficiency. Bravo to CBA for stepping up!

Craig Sundstrom

My response? Timing is everything. Whatever it merits, this isn’t going to be on anyone’s “to do” list right now.

Richard Layman
2 years 27 days ago

CBA taking the lead is like Shake Shack and others taking money from the stimulus that was intended for small businesses.

Last month PBS/NPR released a Frontline documentary on the bag job that the packaging industry did in the 1970s around recycling, to deflate popular sentiment for packaging and recycling laws. The show is brutal.

Maybe Patagonia and Goretex and REI are brands that could take a lead on this. Not most of the companies that are likely to be members of the CBA.

Anyway, after learning about the EU Green Capital program years ago, because I had been commissioned to write a series of articles on EU cities for a project in the US, my thought has been that the US should develop a similar program, but rather than just designate one city each year, it could have three: a big city; a smaller city; and a rural community; as a way to model and diffuse best practices.

Kai Clarke

Finding a profitable solution to Earth Day principles is a major component to ensuring that Earth Day is successful as well as impactful. We are at a major crossroads, since we can measure what happens when we dial back the impact that poor recycling and bad environmental habits have on our environment. The longer we stop manufacturing, traveling, and using non-friendly products, the more we can measure their impact in real world terms. Covid-19 forces this to happen, but empowers us to measure this into the future.

"What Earth Day needs is an advocate and a solid support campaign. The CBA should take a leadership position and make Earth Day relevant and sustainable."

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