From classroom wastepaper baskets to carry-in/carry-out rules at public parks, and through hundreds of other examples, we are taught and expected to clean up after ourselves. Under a bill before the General Assembly, that lesson would be taught to all producers of every imaginable type of good that is created, shipped into, and sold in Rhode Island. The bill would create a system called extended producer responsibility (EPR) and it would apply to packaging of all goods sold in the state — food, toys, electronics, clothing, appliances, housewares, all the stuff that arrives from Amazon, and more.
The principle of EPR is that producers of goods must be responsible for managing their packaging through its entire life cycle, disposal, and reuse. The EPR program would create a database of all packaging introduced into Rhode Island by all producers of all goods, and producers would pay fees for disposal of the packaging. Producers would pay higher fees for nearly indestructible packaging — that is, plastics — and small or no fees for packaging that is recyclable or refillable and reusable. The larger goal of EPR programs is to incentivize producers to redesign their packaging to make it lighter, lesser, and, most important, recyclable or reusable.
It is a big undertaking, with lots of powerful opposition, including from the oil and petroleum industry, which has targeted the production of plastics as a major avenue for the generation of income in the coming decades. On the surface, extended producer responsibility sounds simply audacious. Sen. Bridget Valverde, D-East Greenwich, lead sponsor of the bill in the Senate, said, “To me, what is audacious is that we have no guardrails on the waste that is produced in this country. Manufacturers are putting trash out into the world, filling up the oceans and rivers and land, and they don’t have to answer for it. Holding producers responsible through economic means is the only thing that will incentivize them to change their behavior. This law is well worth doing.”