Extended producer responsibility and the recycling crisis

Recycling container. Recycling crisis
City of St. Petersburg via Flickr

The terms “extended producer responsibility”(EPR) and “product stewardship mean about the same thing. Recently, however, a distinction has arisen.  Product stewardship mostly means voluntary programs. EPR  mostly refers to programs mandated by. States are exploring it as a way to solve the recycling crisis. 

The current state of recycling in the US is a mess. Every recycling program had its own rules for what and how to recycle. This lack of standardization and confusing labeling causes trouble. Consumers put too much recycling in the trash and too much trash in the recycling. 

Many municipalities used sell recyclables to Chinese companies. Their end product often had as much as a 25% contamination rate. China slammed the door shut beginning in 2018. In response, many local governments raised the price to consumers of collecting recyclables. Some drastically cut down on what they were willing to accept. Others stopped recycling entirely. MORE

Paying for recycling services

Trash and recycling truck. Extended producer responsibility
Fairfax County via Flickr

Now, municipalities have full responsibility for post-consumer waste management. Most offer both landfills and recycling. They pay for it with tax money. They have little control over the safety of whatever goes into the landfills. That is, a city can’t compel manufacturers to provide products or packaging for safer disposal.

EPR shifts the burden back to producers. They must take responsibility for their products’ end of life. That gives them incentive to design products that don’t use polluting ingredients. They also have incentive to make products that they can recycle themselves as raw materials for new products. 

Thomas Lindqvist of Sweden’s Lund University first proposed the concept of extended producer responsibility in 1990. He thought manufacturers should take responsibility for the entire life cycle of their products. And it would take laws to make it happen.

Without EPR, consumers have the responsibility of disposing of whatever they no longer want. But municipalities have the responsibility of collecting trash and doing something with it. Landfills and recycling have become unwieldy and expensive.

Germany passed the world’s first EPR law in 1991. As a result, German could separate packaging from regular trash. Manufacturers received the packaging. European laws make manufacturers, not governments, collect, sort, and recycle packaging. When of Belgium passed its law, manufacturers hired full-time designers to create more easily recycled packaging. 

Extended producer responsibility in the US and Canada

Photo by David Wright via Wikimedia Commons

In the US and Canada, state and municipal governments have introduced a hodgepodge of EPR legislation. Laws might be limited to a single product, such as electronic waste or paint. British Columbia, for example, established more than 20 EPR programs, beginning in 1994. In 2003, it began to streamline them into a single regulation to cover the entire recycling industry. Manufacturers bear responsibility for the whole recycling process. 

Maine passed laws to make manufacturers take care of electronic waste to in 2004. Over the next few years, 24 other states passed some kind of laws about handling electronic waste. And states began to pass laws regarding other product types. 

States, cities, and counties keep passing more EPR laws all the time. At last count, 60 American jurisdictions have enacted 119 EPR laws and 19 states have multiple EPR mandates.  These laws regulate 14 different kinds of products, including batteries, medicine, carpets, paint, and products with mercury. 

EPR  has not yet revolutionized systems for handling product lifecycles. But it has become a recognized tool for improving management of dangerous and hard to recycle wastes. 

Extended producer responsibility and packaging 

groceries and packaging. extended producer responsibility
Groceries–and packaging. Photo by Phillip Stewart via Flickr

In 2019, Maine enacted a bill requiring the Department of Environmental Protection to draft an EPR law for packaging.  It envisions creating a Producer Responsibility Organization comprising companies that sell more than one ton or more than $1 million in annual revenue. 

The organization will collect fees from the companies based in part on the weight of the packaging. Companies will pay a low fee for easily recycled packaging such as cardboard boxes or plastic bottles.  They will pay a higher fee for what’s hard or impossible to recycle. 

For example, no one can recycle composites of various kinds of plastic, metals, or paper. While it is possible to recycle Styrofoam™,  it wreaks havoc in recycling sorting equipment. Municipal recycling programs don’t collect it. 

As it is  now, product designers might  not even be aware of how much trouble their packaging causes for recycling operations. For another example, optical sorting equipment can’t see black plastic.

Some states have taken action to ban plastic bags or straws. Or they make consumers spend more for them. EPR can be a more effective strategy. If companies have to pay for proper disposal of all that nightmare packaging, they will find a way to reduce their costs. Like Belgian manufacturers, they will look for more easily recyclable alternatives. 

But the packaging industry has created Ameripen, an organization  tasked with opposing EPR laws.  Many manufacturers prefer their own voluntary product stewardship programs. The paper industry, for example, invested heavily in making paper products easier to recycle. And they did it without government mandates. 

Nevertheless, manufacturers churn out products that create waste management headaches. Consumer education may be able to reduce contamination from aspirational recycling, but it won’t touch the problem of the torrent of unrecyclable packaging. 

Oregon tries a different approach to extended producer responsibility

mountain of plastic trash. extended producer responsibility
Photo by Shafiu Hussein via Flickr

As soon as the Chinese crackdown went into effect, the state of Oregon began to explore statewide solutions to the recycling crisis. Recently announce recommendations include EPR. If the plan becomes law, packaging companies will have to pay some of the costs of collecting and processing recycling. But unlike some EPR regulations, companies will not have to run the entire process.

But they would also have to change their labeling. Right now many plastic products bear the familiar recycling symbol are  not accepted for recycling by most recycling programs. The proposed law changes packaging requirements. No longer would any product sold in Oregon be allowed to display the recycling symbol unless it is actually recyclable in Oregon. 

Although the packaging industry has generally resisted EPR. Ameripen is looking favorably on Oregon’s proposed legislation. It supports the concept if its share of the funding goes to innovation and consumer education. It has no interest, on the other hand, in paying for recycling systems’ operating costs. 

These recycling reforms will cost the industry tens of millions of dollars as a whole. But the burden will be spread among so many different companies that they won’t find the added costs onerous. And they should not add significantly to consumer prices. 

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Extended producer responsibility in BC / Recycle BC
Oregon wants companies to help pay for a new recycling system / Cassandra Profita, Oregon Public Broadcasting. October 20, 2020
The state of producer responsibility in the United States / Gemma Alexander, Earth911. July 17, 2020
To fix America’s broken recycling system, states want companies to foot the bill / Alana Semuels, Time. February 26. 2020

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