State governments are beginning to mandate producers’ recycling role
Recycle, reduce, reuse. The mantra is taught to us at a very young age, and for good reason. Recycling helps reduce waste, conserve natural resources, increase economic security, prevent pollution, and save energy.
But, while we are all innately responsible for doing our part to help maintain a healthy and inhabitable planet, where does the onus lie for the companies who create the products we turn around and recycle?
The concept of extended producer responsibility (EPR) has been around for decades, and states that manufacturers and importers must bear some responsibility for the environmental impacts their products have on the planet throughout the entirety of their life cycles.
This includes, but is not limited to, their upstream impacts stemming from the materials used to create the product, impacts created by manufacturers producing the products, and the downstream impacts that occur after the product is disposed of.
At the heart of EPR, producers must take responsibility for these things during the original design process, do their part to minimize the environmental impacts their product will have, and take responsibility for any legal, socio-economic, or physical impacts that they are unable to eliminate during creation.
Just recently, Maine became the first U.S. state to finally hold producers to the standard set by EPR. As of July 13, the most northern state in the country is mandating companies pay fees in relation to manufactured packaging for products sold in the state. The fees will go toward funding state recycling and waste management programs.
Companies will be required to file annual reports to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, which will determine what the fees should be based on a packaging’s net weight, means of collection, and processing costs per ton.
Suzanne Shelton, president and CEO of sustainability marketing company Shelton Group, wrote a column published on GreenBiz in which she said companies will need to play ball with the new laws if they want to save face with increasingly green consumers.
“Companies will be wise to help shape these laws — be at the table or on the menu, so to speak. But it’s also smart from a consumer perception/optics standpoint,” Shelton wrote. “If you think your core buyer won’t find out that you fought EPR laws tooth and nail, you’re wrong. They’ll find out, and it will look like you laid a problem at their doorstep. And based on our trendlines, they’re not having it.”
In today’s climate, as Shelton alludes to, consumers are concerned with the way manufacturers are taking care to protect the environment. No longer is there an ignorance is bliss approach.
The truth, quite frankly, is that this new standard of demanding transparency and sustainability is likely to continue for the foreseeable future, as the effects of global warming and climate change become more and more impactful and severe.
“We need everybody’s voice in the mix (business, regulatory, NGO, waste collection and the consumer) to create a sustainable future for packaging,” Shelton wrote. “Consumers expect the companies they buy from to both minimize packaging and have a plan for where it goes when they’re done with it. Companies that take the attitude of, ‘It’s not our problem’ will be shunned by the market in the long run.”
Less than a month after Maine made history, Oregon followed suit, receiving legislative approval on Aug. 6 to make packaging producers partly responsible for funding their products’ recycling.
The bill had been approved by the Oregon House and Senate two months prior, and the Beaver State is now working to establish a program to hold producers responsible for the recycling of packaging, food service ware, printing, and writing paper. Producers will have to join responsibility organizations, which will manage responsibility programs on their behalf.
One noticeable difference between the Oregon and Maine law is that, in Oregon, producers will only be responsible for around 25% of recycling costs related to their products, while in Maine, producers will be responsible for the entirety of the cost.
The Oregon law was advocated for by the Product Stewardship Institute (PSI), which issued a statement wherein they noted this difference, among others, but ultimately praised the state for following suit.
“With this new law, Oregon ratepayers will be provided a much more accessible, responsible, and stable recycling system,” said PSI Founder and CEO Scott Cassel. “It will also provide producers with the financial incentive to make their packaging more sustainable, and local communities with funding for reuse and waste prevention programs.”
In some ways, Oregon’s bill actually takes EPR a step further, as it sets in motion a multitude of changes in the recycling system. In addition to standards set by EPR, the bill lays the groundwork for a materials recovery facility (MRF) certification program, along with measures in place to slim down the potential impact an MRF would have on surrounding communities.
The bill will also require recycling facilities to pay their employees what is deemed a living wage and establishes a task force to study issues with recyclability labeling.
“It’s encouraging to see the extensive provisions aimed at addressing recycling inequities and environmental justice in Oregon’s new law,” said Sydney Harris, PSI policy and programs manager and packaging lead. “We have these elements in PSI’s policy model and hope to see them included in all packaging EPR legislation.”
Not everyone is entirely on board with the new regulations, however. Dan Felton, executive director of AMERIPEN, a company that represents U.S. packagers, wrote an opinion piece published on Packaging Digest in which he disagreed with the government getting involved in what he believes should be at the discretion of producers.
“As a result of these laws, we anticipate more packaging producer responsibility programs to develop across the country, and AMERIPEN will continue our dialog with lawmakers to advocate for the industry and to effectively use our expertise to build programs that are results based, efficient and effective, and equitable and fair,” Felton wrote. “We can support industry financing for packaging recycling and recovery, but we need to ensure that programs work for all stakeholders and are not simply a transfer of funds from one payer to another with little vision toward revitalizing the recycling/recovery system for the future.”
Despite the bemoaning, it would appear things are indeed headed in the direction of government intervention. With the climate crisis only getting worse, states are clearly beginning to feel they need to step in and take charge.
Recycle, reduce, reuse, re-govern?