Because of relatively stagnant recycling tonnage and shrinking public budgets, EPR can meet industry’s need for additional recycled materials and government’s need for reliable and ongoing funding for expanded infrastructure.
Melissa Walsh Innes
During the last few years, extended producer responsibility (EPR) has ignited the imagination of recycling professionals and advocates who have sought a policy solution that addresses unmet needs in the private and environmental sectors for packaging and printed paper waste. Recycling in the U.S. has not met its potential. National recycling rates have not exceeded 34 percent, while other industrialized countries recycle twice that percentage. U.S. recycling programs are inconsistent and vary in quality, allowing valuable resources to end up in landfills, be incinerated or blow away into water sources. Our current recycling system is not keeping pace with supply and demand. Additional public funds to enhance and expand recycling are in short supply.
EPR offers a solution to major issues of concern to all players from local government to consumers. Direct environmental benefits include source reduction of virgin materials, reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, design for the environment, reduced waterway and marine debris, as well as reduced use of landfills and incineration. Because of relatively stagnant recycling tonnage and shrinking public budgets, EPR can meet industry’s need for additional recycled materials and government’s need for reliable and ongoing funding for expanded infrastructure.
Paint. Carpet. Electronics. Mercury thermostats. Now that there are over 70 state-level product stewardship/EPR laws mandating producer responsibility for these and other products in the U.S.1, municipalities and recycling professionals are looking ahead to see what other discards can be covered under these programs that have guaranteed funding from industry. Knowing that many of the current laws cover “problem” products, it may seem surprising that consumer discarded packaging shines brightest as the next, game changing category for EPR efforts (Europe and Canada already have established EPR programs for packaging and printed paper).
Some questions that pop up in discussions with stakeholders: Why is discarded packaging a problem? Doesn’t it have a market already? And doesn’t paper get recycled at high rates? All good questions and worth extended discussion and research to get at the real issues about why the average national recycling rate of consumer packaging in the U.S. is still a paltry 34 percent when there are already markets for many of these materials. A good source for specifics on what packaging and paper is getting recycled is As You Sow’s 2012 white paper, estimating that Americans are burying 11 billion dollars’ worth of packaging and paper per year that could instead be recycled and reused for manufacture.2
EPR Cost-Benefit Study and its Key Conclusions
We recently wrapped up a yearlong EPR cost-benefit study,3 led by the Reclay StewardEdge consulting team, that reviewed current recycling programs, outcomes, and costs in Minnesota compared to a modeled statewide EPR system for packaging and printed paper. The modeled system would expand access to recycling and implement collection best practices for residential recycling; institute a coordinated statewide program for away-from-home recycling; improve the efficiency of processing; and estimate the costs of the modeled EPR system. The study estimates how the costs of a future system could be allocated to producers under a hypothetical EPR financing system. It also examines existing and future markets for consumer PPP collected in Minnesota.
Key Conclusions from the Study
- The modeled EPR system would provide the following residential recycling services:
- Expand direct collection service (curbside and multifamily) from 70 percent of Minnesota households to 87 percent under the modeled system.
- Expand single-stream recycling from approximately 60 percent of households (as of 2011) to 100 percent under the modeled system.
- Standardize and expand the materials collected and collection method for recycling to reduce confusion among households about how and what to recycle.
- Increase in promotion and education that includes $1 per household in spending on basic education plus an additional $1 per household on a statewide campaign to promote increased recycling, including promotion of away-from-home recycling opportunities and return of plastic bags and film to retail collection points.
Under the modeled EPR system, the total tons of consumer packaging and printed paper (PPP) recycled would increase by nearly one third.
Opportunities for Recyclers
Hands down, haulers and MRFs will benefit by getting more materials from households and public spaces in an EPR program for PPP, and the study can be used in other states to model what recycling rate increases could occur with specific state’s existing costs and infrastructure. Our state legislative proposals that outline model EPR systems do not envision new infrastructure owned and run by brand owners.
The system would rely on and enhance existing curbside infrastructure as well as drop-off locations in rural areas. Municipalities that have efficient recycling collections and private haulers and processors would likely maintain their operations, and brand owners would then reimburse them at a negotiated rate.
Opportunities for Local Government
Local government (counties and municipalities) operating their own MRFs, drop-off sites, and/or trucks would receive industry funding to pay for all or most of a their costs for household recycling. Local government that would like to get out of administering recycling would be able to have producers manage the process. Residents would be able to recycle a broader set of materials over time as industry works with local government on markets, storage space, transportation, etc. Local government with their own fleets or material recovery facilities (MRF) would work with the industry group (referred to as a PRO-producer responsibility organization) to find efficiency in their system if their costs exceed the negotiated rate. Considering how little extra funding state and local government have to make improvements in their recycling promotion and infrastructure, the industry funding from an EPR program would allow more focus on other elements of their community work, including education, police, fire and rescue, etc.
Opportunities for Brandowners
For many years, companies have worked on and financed recycling pilot programs and initiatives to get their own materials back, but there is a lack of coordination and collaboration amongst the majority of brand owners that leads to the current stagnant recycling rates. There are multiple opportunities for brand owners in a strong, producer-financed EPR recycling program, such as competitiveness, innovation, and maintaining a responsible reputation for the products they put into the marketplace. For those brand owners who manufacture their goods, having a larger supply of recycled feedstock can lead to lower costs and future supply security.
Why Industry Needs Legislation to Make It Work
State-level legislation will be necessary to create the foundation for EPR for PPP. Legislation would provide a level playing field for all brands by ensuring that all contribute to the system according to their market share. This avoids a free-rider problem in which some brands would pay into the system but all brands receive the benefits. Legislation is also necessary to set up state oversight and to ensure fairness among brand owners in the governance of the system, which promotes the public interest.
EPR a Strong Tool to Move the Needle on Recycling Rates
We believe that implementation of producer-financed EPR recycling programs for packaging and printed paper would substantially increase recycling rates, reduce government spending, and use private sector efficiencies to work to reduce the overall cost of recycling. The ultimate goal is to progress to a new recycling paradigm in the United States, highly accessible to all citizens and financed by industry through consumer purchases, not by the general taxpayer or ratepayer. Although different EPR programs are used elsewhere around the world in over 38 countries, we are seeking a uniquely American approach and welcome companies and organizations to join this effort.
Melissa Walsh Innes is the Deputy Director for Recycling Reinvented (Shoreview, MN). Her work includes collaborating with all stakeholders, and learning best practices from recycling experts across the country. Melissa is a former state representative from Maine, having served on Maine’s Joint Standing Committee on Environment and Natural Resources. As a legislator, Melissa worked on recycling and product stewardship legislation, including paint, medical sharps, pharmaceuticals, cfl’s, e-waste, and container laws. Melissa was the sponsor of Maine’s first-in-the-nation Product Stewardship Framework Law of 2010, as well as the sponsor of a successful e-waste program expansion in 2011 (both done with unanimous bipartisan support). She has spoken on EPR policy to audiences across the country, as well as Australia, Brazil and Canada. Melissa can be reached at Melissa@Recycling-Reinvented.org.
Recycling Reinvented was set up by both a consumer brand seeking more recycled material and national environmental advocates seeking higher recycling rates. Staffed by two former state legislators, based in Minnesota and Maine, Recycling Reinvented maintains a national scope in their work to advance EPR for packaging and printed paper (PPP). Private companies led by Nestlé Waters North America and New Belgium Brewing support this goal, and are calling publicly for EPR. Recycling Reinvented believes EPR for packaging and printed paper would be the best and most cost-effective way to involve the consumer brands that sell packaging and paper to support higher recycling rates. They are working to expand this group of stakeholders to bring strong support for this model in key states that are invested in raising their recycling rates. For more information, visitwww.Recycling-Reinvented.org.
- Product Stewardship Institute, Extended Producer Responsibility State Laws, http://productstewardship.us/displaycommon.cfm?an=1&subarticlenbr=280, December 2013 (accessed January 15, 2014).
- Conrad MacKerron, Unfinished Business: The Case for Extended Producer Responsibility for Post-Consumer Packaging, www.asyousow.org/download/epr.shtml, July 2012 (accessed January 15, 2014).
- Reclay StewardEdge, Recycling Reinvented Extended Producer Responsibility Cost-Benefit Study, http://marketbasedrecycling.com, March 2014 (accessed January 15, 2014).