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On America Recycles Day, It's Time to Realize That Competitors Must Learn How to Collaborate

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Tuesday is American Recycles Day, and every individual who recycles, or makes it their business to purchase recycled materials, is a hero. And here is a tale of recycling that highlights the collaborative efforts of many stakeholders in a basic industry who have made heroic strides to increase recycling efforts in the United States.

The saga starts with the carton.

Imagine the school lunch without its key essential -- the simple little carton of milk that's the most nutrition-dense food on the tray. Or a snack bag without its mainstay, the go-anywhere juice box that makes it effortless to have a healthy, sterile drink whenever want or need arises.

To paraphrase American comedian Rodney Dangerfield, the carton gets no respect. But it's no loser. We don't give them a second thought, yet this basic, economical, easy-to-use device vastly improves our quality of life. In truth, it's indispensable, which explains why billions of them are manufactured yearly. And each one is meticulously engineered to keep good things in and bad things out.

Admittedly, there's a downside: used cartons could create billions of tons of waste that can clog landfills.

And there's a silver lining: cartons are eminently recyclable -- and doing so not only reduces the volume of trash that goes to landfills, it reuses resources and gives communities an avenue of potential revenue from their sale to recycling facilities.

Yet a few years ago, most cities didn't have programs in place that would allow them to recycle cartons. In 2008, just 18 percent of approximately 112 millions U.S. households had access to carton recycling programs. Major cities that weren't carton-capable included Los Angles, Dallas and Charlotte.

Obviously, this created a really tough sustainability issue. How could we raise this number?

At MIT's Sustainability Summit in 2010, MIT Sloan School of Management director Peter Senge pointed out that making real headway on hard issues requires "a massive undertaking in collaboration," and "the parties that need to collaborate often aren't naturally inclined to -- such as competitors in the same industry."

In the carton industry, we got there on our own. Tetra Pak, which had been dealing with recycling and sustainability issues since the early 1990s, joined forces with the nation's three other largest carton manufacturers -- Elopak, Evergreen Packaging and SIG/SIG Combibloc -- and later the paperboard supplier Weyerhaeuser, in 2009. The Carton Council was born, and it had a clear mission: to change this sorry state of affairs, as quickly as possible.

The council established aggressive sustainability goals immediately, and today, just shy of three years later, over 41 million U.S. households have access to carton recycling programs -- a current rate of 37 percent. And through the first 10 months of 2011, over seven million more households have been added to the carton recycling access list, representing a 21 percent increase in total access for this year alone. Now 2,115 communities in 40 states accept cartons in their curbside collection programs.

How the Council achieved these results, and an agenda to keep going until every community in our country has access to carton recycling, is a lesson for all industries as we celebrate America Recycles Day every November 15. Senge also said that we've "got to wake up and say 'we're all part of the system.' You know who is causing the destruction of species? You and me. You know who's causing the huge waste problems around the world? You and me."

And 'you and me' calls for collaboration. Innovative collaboration. It's the only way to solve big problems. And it's also the kind of corporate social responsibly we all need to practice.

The Council's initiative required simple steps -- but they were thoughtfully planned, carefully orchestrated and they built on each other. Each member devoted significant amount of resources were devoted to the project, but the fiscal investment was secondary; the most important contributions were time, commitment and collaboration.

The basic reality was the Council's starting point: Why did so many cities exclude cartons from their recycling programs?

Nationwide research studies the Council conducted showed that many communities' sorting facilities lacked the ability to sort cartons, and paper mills to purchase them. So the very infrastructure of the waste management industry had to be changed from the ground up.

This required collaboration on a grand scale. The Council members teamed up to provide recycling faculties with funding for equipment upgrades, technical expertise for operational changes and marketing assistance to sell the cartons and pulp they would yield. And they worked together to give communities, haulers and school systems technical assistance, communications support and educational programs -- complete with field teams to assist them directly and a free toolkit available online at RecycleCartons.com.

Two examples of key public partnerships our Council initiated and successfully developed just this year were with the cities of Dallas and Los Angeles, which both just began accepting cartons in their curbside recycling programs. In both cases, we worked with the City's recycling processors to ensure cartons would be marketable once they were added to the process; provided technical and financial support for equipment upgrades; and helped the cities develop effective public information programs.

The Council's successes have led to an ambitious goal to reach 50 percent of all communities in the U.S. with carton recycling programs by 2015. That accounts for 67.5 million households. And from research, we know that these efforts are making an impact that's broader and deeper than originally expected. How so? Studies show that when you add more materials to municipal recycling programs, it increases the number of households that participate and the total amount of materials they recycle.

So Tuesday, on America Recycles Day, it's critical to note that to make real inroads in any arena, social innovation goes hand-in-hand with technical expertise. As Senge says, we need to look for things we can do collaboratively with stakeholders who may not be our usual partners -- and do them, one small step at a time.

Michael Zacka is North America President and CEO of Swiss multi-national Tetra Pak, the world's largest food processing and packaging company.