Plastic use is on the rise and not only is it clogging the oceans, but it is weighing down municipal recycling systems in the United States. The costs of collecting and recycling or landfilling plastic waste have increased since China stopped importing our waste in 2018.
All of this explains why states are suddenly pushing forward a flurry of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) bills.
EPR laws require manufacturers to take some responsibility for the afterlife of their products, either through a fee, regulation, or both. They have been tested for electronics, mattresses and paint. But now the laws are being redirected to tackle packaging waste.
Last summer, Maine and Oregon passed laws that require growers to join or fund stewardship organizations that will make it easier to recycle their produce. Maine exempts low-volume producers; Oregon will charge an annual fee based on the environmental impacts of a company’s products. Laws in both states are intended to encourage less packaging. Massachusetts and Colorado have similar bills moving through the legislative process.
Politicians have touted EPR both as a way to save on collection and recycling and as a tool to reduce the creation of plastic in the first place. New York Governor Kathy Hochul introduced such a proposal in her 2023 budget, saying it would incentivize producers “to reduce waste…make products that are easier to recycle and support a circular economy.”
But most plastic experts are skeptical. “European countries have had EPR systems for many years. I haven’t seen any evidence that they have significantly changed the amount of packaging used or recycled,” says Julia Attwood, sustainable materials manager at BloombergNEF, a clean energy research group. “They are just an attempt to recover money from packaging producers for municipalities that badly need it to pay [Materials Recovery Facilities] and recyclers.
Judith Enck, president of nonprofit Beyond Plastics, agrees. She argues that proposed EPR bills in the states are actually worse than no legislation at all, because they give the impression of doing nothing. For starters, she says, the fees imposed by many bills are far too low to make a difference to producers, who are just passing on the cost, and are too far removed from the final phase of the life cycle to be an incentive to recycle.
The second problem, says Enck, is too much industry involvement. Many of the bills surfacing now are drafted with input from the American Chemistry Council, a plastics industry lobby group that is trying to avoid meaningful restrictions on the pass: “Put the ACC in charge of packaging programs is like holding the fossil fuel industry accountable for reducing GHG emissions,” says Enck.
New York’s proposal – which has since been eliminated from the state budget – set no requirements to reduce packaging waste, but called for an advisory board, including members from the plastics industry, that would have recommended minimum recovery and recycling rates and the amount of recycled content in new products.
Instead, Enck and other advocates would like to see laws that require reductions in the amount of packaging produced and “phased” increases in the share of recycled and recyclable content in manufactured goods.
“We’ve talked to people in Europe and their biggest regret isn’t demanding less packaging,” says Enck. Lawyers are determined not to repeat this mistake in the United States
Leslie Kaufman writes the Climate Report newsletter on the impact of global warming.
©2022 Bloomberg LP