In the past few years, thanks in no small part to well-trafficked videos involving sea turtles and straws, there has been an unprecedented public outcry in the US over the environmental impacts of the waste we produce. This has led to a proliferation of fees and bans, targeting specific single use products such as straws, bags or balloons. While such measures pluck some of the lowest hanging fruit, their impact is relatively limited. Straws, for example, account for less than 0.025% of the weight of plastic debris in the oceans. Fortunately, the conversation has continued to evolve and measures to reduce waste and move towards a circular economy are coming into focus.
Picking up the bill
People across the US rely on their town or city to provide recycling services for packaging. However, only 53% of Americans have kerbside recycling services automatically provided at their homes, and the scope of such services varies widely, meaning that the materials collected vary between municipalities. As a result, reported recycling rates in the US are relatively low – hovering around 35% for more than a decade. However, it is generally accepted that this rate is based on a low-end estimate of waste generation, so the rate is likely to be overstated by some margin.
As Democratic Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico says,
“The cold, hard fact is that recycling is not working effectively in the United States today.”
Towns and cities can’t be expected to solve this problem alone. Municipalities fund their collection services through taxes or fees and are confined in the scope of the materials they can collect by what they are able to sell on the market. The range of materials that can be recycled within such a system has narrowed in many places since China restricted imports of recyclables in 2018, rendering mixed plastics, glass and much single-stream recycling virtually valueless in many areas. Senator Udall, along with Representative Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif), recently released a draft bill for discussion that proposes a number of measures to tackle plastic waste, including Extended Producer Responsibility for packaging, or “EPR.”
EPR is a system in which the producers of a product take financial responsibility, and sometimes operational responsibility, for its end-of-life management, and effective programs can radically improve how waste is handled. EPR can mean producers having to finance or manage the end-of-life care of their products, regardless of disposal stream (e.g. litter, garbage, recycling, etc.).
Operational management of the system can be retained by municipalities, or handed over to producers to give them greater control over how their money is spent. Effective programs set recycling targets for producers so that they must fund the achievement of higher recycling rates. With these programs in place, producers are incentivised towards a more circular economy, regardless of whether it is cheaper to throw everything in the trash.
Through careful guidance and targets set by the government, EPR pushes industry to use its efficiencies and economies of scale to provide a wide-ranging solution. Well-designed programs increase consistency of, and access to, services, while transferring costs and material price risk to producers, also incentivising them to design out waste – and ensure that what remains is more easily managed. Currently, companies wishing to make environmentally friendly choices with their products must compete with producers willing to rely on what is, for the most part in the US, relatively cheap disposal. EPR levels the playing field, with the potential to make sustainable systems like reuse as attractive as single-use.
EPR is not a new policy. European countries and Canada, among others, have already adopted EPR legislation for packaging waste, amongst other materials. In the US, 118 programs exist in 33 states for products such as paint, electronics, carpets, and pharmaceuticals, yet EPR for packaging has remained elusive.
EPR has benefits for producers, supporting their expressed objectives by providing the opportunity to optimise a reverse supply chain for handling recycled packaging. This should be attractive to the many large producers that have made commitments in recent years to reduce waste, increase recycled content and make the packaging of their products more recyclable and/or sustainable. Looking at a few of the biggest producers:
- Unilever has promised to halve the amount of virgin plastic used from 2019 to 2025 and to collect and process more plastic packaging than they sell by 2025. They have also published “Design for Recyclability” guidelines;
- Coca-Cola has pledged to collect for recycling 100% of its containers by 2030 and to make its packaging 100% recyclable by 2025, incorporating 50% recycled content by 2030;
- PepsiCo’s recycled content goal is 33% by 2025, and it also intends to make its containers 100% recyclable, biodegradable or compostable; and
- Nestle North America aims for 25% recycled content by 2021 and asserts that all its packaging is already 100% recyclable.
These global producers already participate in EPR systems for product packaging in Europe and Canada. They can do so in the US as well.
The tide appears to be turning. In addition to Sen. Udall and Rep. Lowenthal’s bill, lawmakers in Washington state, Indiana, Massachusetts, and Maine all introduced packaging EPR legislation. California, Connecticut and North Carolina legislators have considered EPR for packaging in the past. As the cost of municipal waste recycling increases, and as public sentiment continues to turn against plastic, EPR for packaging is receiving more favourable attention.
However, EPR remains a hard sell. Though it is increasingly accepted as a cost of doing business in Europe, it is inevitable that some producers in the US will lobby against the increased cost and financial responsibility (even though their competitors are, in principle, equally affected) – they profit from our throwaway culture. But with the right conditions in place, EPR for packaging should become a reality. These conditions include:
- Political will – legislators must be bold when trying to establish an innovative, disruptive program. Waste management behaviours are deeply entrenched in both citizens and industry, and legislators must be willing to speak to the benefits of EPR and convince doubters;
- Expert-level knowledge – a bill must be crafted so as to make the EPR system effective. This includes proper governance structures (a vision for which is provided in Figure 1), high recycling targets for different materials, and considerations to protect small businesses from disproportionate impacts;
- Stakeholder management – with many parties involved in recycling, everyone will need to be informed on the benefits of EPR and how they will be affected, including:
- Industry – if producers are brought in to the planning process early, they can have input into its structure and are more likely to have buy-in or even become proponents;
- Municipalities – if producers have a bigger role in waste management, municipalities need to know what this means for them. Giving municipalities first right-of-refusal on collections or other services should be considered;
- Residents – any changes to residential waste management services need to be clearly explained. Education is essential to ensure that residents are invested in the success of the system, and to drive behaviouar change.
EPR systems have the power to ensure quality material is fed back into an increasingly circular economy, reducing our reliance on virgin material and incentivising sustainable packaging design. But policies should be implemented with a degree of caution. Poorly designed, loophole-ridden EPR systems would be ineffective and thereby validate producers’ concerns.
Legislators considering EPR should ensure that it includes:
- High, measurable, material-specific targets that are set to ensure that recycling is incentivised;
- Clear guidance on operational responsibilities and oversight such that the optimum systems can be developed and financed based on knowledge of future packaging flows;
- Clauses to safeguard and complement successful existing programs, such as bottle deposit programs;
- Provisions to ensure equal access to services for all residents;
- Monitoring by to the government or a third-party regulatory enforcement agency;
- Transparent reporting on progress to ensure progress; and
- A clear, stringent definition of recycling that does not include landfill or waste-to-energy.
America is ready for a solution to the waste crisis that addresses more than straws and bags. An effective EPR program can support enhancement of collection services, and the updating of infrastructure, and if well-designed, might support greater reprocessing of materials within the USA. Currently, taxpayers pick up the tab for tackling the products that producers put on the market – essentially, a sort of corporate welfare. But, just as big tobacco had to in the ’90s, producers now need to take responsibility for the impact of their products. EPR is the way to ensure that they do.
Featured image: Rob Sinclair (CC BY-SA 2.0), via Flickr