- Waste Management CEO Jim Fish projects extended producer responsibility (EPR) for packaging could be coming in the United States. "I would suspect California will, and maybe in fairly short order, adopt something along those lines," he said at a National Geographic event on Wednesday. "And it may be similar to what the Europeans have adopted."
- In response to a moderator question about the value of EPR in reducing plastic waste, Fish stopped short of taking a specific stance. Instead, he noted "the devil is always in the details" and later went on to say that such nuances "will be the ultimate decider as to whether it plays an important role or not."
- Milliken & Company CEO Halsey Cook went slightly further, saying EPR "has a role" and citing the success of state container deposit programs for materials such as aluminum. Jacob Duer, CEO of the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, said his group's 47 member companies have varying views and called for more government incentives.
The limited remarks on EPR were part of a broader discussion on global plastic waste – an issue Waste Management highlighted at its 2019 sustainability forum with National Geographic – but they come at a time of heightened interest in the issue.
Editor-in-Chief Susan Goldberg, the session's moderator, noted the topic is getting new national attention thanks to the recently introduced Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act. Milliken's Cook said he expects to see further federal legislation, citing the potential for an unnamed third Senate bill that could be introduced around plastics.
While federal prospects are less certain, movement is also occurring across a number of states on new and existing EPR proposals. Coinciding with the panel in Washington, D.C. was a marathon legislative hearing underway in Maine about a state bill that could establish EPR for packaging. Industry groups such as the National Waste & Recycling Association and Institute for Scrap Recycling Industries submitted skeptical testimony, raising numerous questions about implementation and outcomes.
Coincidentally, Waste Management's opposition to a California EPR bill (which Republic Services supported) was also addressed this week. As part of a shareholder resolution withdrawal agreement, Waste Management will update the existing policy that it does not support EPR for curbside recyclables. The company hasn't indicated any further details, but Fish's more neutral comments and projection about California could be a preview of what's to come. The California bill remains in play and could see further action this year.
Still, Fish made it clear when speaking about the role of government policy and incentives that his "preference is always for private industry to develop solutions." He also noted that variation in state regulations makes the U.S. different than the European Union when it comes to waste and recycling policy.
Throughout the panel, there was also an overarching discussion about efforts to reorient the strained business model of recycling by increasing demand for post-consumer recycled (PCR) content. Fish cited a recent project with Cascade Cart Solutions to use more PCR in curbside carts purchased by Waste Management as an example. Yet the panelists agreed more action will be required by major consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies to really change the equation.
Cook – whose company is an equity investor in the plastics recycling company PureCycle – cited numerous PCR commitments by big brands and said he thinks consumers might even be willing to pay more for that attribute. Duer, whose membership includes many adjacent companies, agreed that movement is happening but cited a supply chain gap.
“Their challenge is, they don’t know where to get it from. They don’t know where to get the recycled material of [the] quality that they are looking for," he said, prompting a quip from Fish, who observed that "I can help them."
Figuring out how to bridge that gap remains a complex task. Municipalities seeking to increase recycling activity, companies such as Waste Management — whose own sustainability targets rely in part on boosting such volumes — and both secondary processors that buy sorted material and the universe of CPG companies all say they want more PCR, but are struggling in their efforts.
Numerous funding solutions have been proposed by the private sector, as well as a growing number of funding and education proposals at the federal level, but the question remains whether that will be enough to shift toward a more circular economy at a desirable pace. EPR proponents claim their concept is the best way to do that, and regardless of how legislative proposals fare, it is already clear they've achieved results on one front. What was once viewed as a taboo topic in many industry circles has now become an unavoidable part of discussions at the highest levels.