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The current recycling and waste management dialogue features new ideas and policies as U.S. recycling programs recover from post-2018 National Sword turmoil. Extended producer responsibility (EPR) is one such idea with multiple meanings, making it hard to understand the policy and consider its implications.
In hindsight, past policy priorities — waste-to-energy, single-stream recycling, and long distance hauling to MRFs — were bad investments. EPR for packaging, paper and plastic products presents itself as a panacea for ailing cities. Yet in blurring its intent, officials and the public are missing out on an an alternative to assigning the entire recycling sector to brand name corporations that have vested interests directly opposed to the public good.
Here is an attempt to have a common definition of terms, so that discussions can be more fruitful and less confusing. Hopefully this will lead to a new consensus on best next steps.
Positive EPR policies require producers and distributors to take back products and packages that are hard to recycle, or contain toxic elements with no opportunity for adding value. Examples include batteries, medical sharps, mercury switches, artificial turf and paint. Under these regulations, the polluter pays for the final disposal of its products. These regulations have worked well and helped remove products from municipal financial and environmental responsibility.
Bad EPR policies require take-back of hard to recycle materials and products, but allow for unsustainable end uses such as incineration of mattresses and carpets, or shredding of electronic discards. EPR for electronics, for example, allows original equipment manufacturers to aggregate most of the discards for shredding and prevents social reuse enterprises from gaining access to repairable machines. Electronic discards are the single most valuable commodities in the waste stream. Recovery, repair and resale of machines are critical for both social and economic impacts. Reuse bridges the digital divide and provides skills and good jobs that stabilize families and reduce recidivism. These bad laws allow this high potential opportunity to be removed from communities.
The most problematic EPR policies call for beverage industry control of the entire recycling system, removing local government from responsibility, capacity and authority. This eliminates the opportunity for residents and small businesses to impact decision-making at the local level. Mary Lou Van Deventer, co-owner of mission-based recycler Urban Ore, calls this “a hostile take over of a vibrant decentralized industry." This is a sector that includes recycling activity across hundreds of thousands of businesses and government programs. According to a recent U.S. EPA report, recycling was responsible for an estimated 757,000 jobs, paying $36.6 billion in wages and $6.7 billion in tax revenue as of 2007.
Most recently, California was considering an EPR policy for beverage containers in which producers would become totally responsible. That effort seeks to address the inability of the state-run container recovery system to overcome industry fraud, consolidation of redemption centers under one company, ever-growing subsidies and alleged discrimination against small and minority operators.
Coca Cola, PepsiCo and Nestlé have historically pushed for their version of full EPR over all recycling in certain cases. This would give their policies the "force of law" over citizen-driven recycling. EPR policies for packaging have failed in a number of states in recent years. More recently, at the federal level, a bill co-sponsored by Senator Udall and Representative Lowenthal called for national EPR. This is precisely what the beverage industry wants. It centralizes control over recycling in the hands of the companies that produce the waste stream, which cities and citizens have to unravel.
Notably different than EPR, this policy requires producers and distributors to pay their fair share of taxes to local governments to cover the cost of recycling their packages and products. This approach retains local government and citizen oversight and control. Product stewardship has been used in certain Canadian provinces for decades. In Ontario, stewardship obligations require producers to cover 50% of the net cost of recycling. The province recently passed new regulations that will require these fees to cover 100% of the net cost in the future. The state of Maine is also considering a product stewardship bill. Media and trade journals often refer to the Maine bill as an EPR bill, which it is not.
State and local minimum content regulations require certain levels of post-consumer recycled materials in products to be sold in the jurisdiction. The vast majority of states have minimum content requirements for copy paper. Additional minimum content regulations apply to newspapers and rigid plastic containers. Gainesville, Florida requires a minimum content of recycled wood chips for landscaping and soil stabilization.
The goal of these regulations is to increase the recycled content of products purchased by government agencies, consumers and businesses. It also reduces waste in the manufacturing and use of products purchased in the marketplace. And it moreover encourages businesses that promote recycling to locate in areas where minimum content regulations require companies to use secondary materials as a primary feedstock.
In Washington state, a bill recently advanced that would require beverage manufacturers to use an average of 10% post-consumer content in 2022, 25% starting in 2025 and 50% starting in 2030. The bill covers water, soda, beer and wine containers. Manufacturers missing these targets will not be allowed sell products in the state. The Maine legislature has also considered a bill requiring plastic containers to have 15% PCR by 2022, increasing to 25% by 2024.
In New England, efforts are also underway for requiring minimum content in road and infrastructure projects. The New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services was planning to host a special workshop on minimum content for plastic corrugated drainage pipes, use of ground asphalt, crumb rubber and processed glass aggregate in roads, before it was recently postponed.
In this dialogue, the key question from a localist perspective is whether or not product stewardship and minimum content policies can end the stagnation of progress in U.S. recycling. If so, EPR and the radical shift to decision-making by corporate executives from elected officials and residents is entirely unnecessary. It poses a dangerous centralization of policy formation and restriction on grassroots activism, which has been the key to progress in recycling for the past 50 years.