Not all the best ideas come from the United States. Case in point—Extended Producer Responsibility in the U.S. was largely inspired by Canada in the 1990s.
By David Nightingale, CHMM, S.C.

Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) is also referred to as product stewardship. They describe a long-term solution to manage waste products by shifting the responsibility for collection, transportation, and management of products away from local governments to manufacturers. The objective is to have product producers create systems for managing end-of-life products. In early discussion of EPR in the U.S., the focus was on products that are expensive to handle, create hazards, or otherwise did not fit with the existing garbage and recycling system.1 EPR initiatives and laws have now extended to a broader set of wastes such as paper and packaging.

Before product stewardship or EPR approaches were established, there were U.S. programs for managing automotive lead-acid batteries, aluminum cans, and other deposit-return commodities largely run by producers and distributors. These systems were, and are still, largely driven by economics (aluminum) or disposal restrictions (lead). However, for products that have less intrinsic economic value, EPR sets up a system to create a take-back and financially sustainable end-of-life management system. This is usually done through state legislation and in the U.S. did not start taking hold until the mid-2000s. This is what I call the “Modern EPR” era in the U.S.

A 2013 Kennedy School analysis suggested that “EPR is taking root across a broad spectrum of states” and that “EPR is not necessarily confined to states that have historically supported strong environmental policies” such as South Carolina and Utah.2 There are currently efforts underway to pass federal EPR legislation for some products.

Local and State Governments Get Inspired and Organized
The Northwest Product Stewardship Council (NWPSC) is a coalition of governments and other organizations in Washington and Oregon that operates as an unincorporated association of members. It was formed around 1998 to collaborate across Oregon and Washington States and coordinate product stewardship initiatives. Its creation was inspired by visits to and discussion about what had been happening across the Canadian border in British Columbia. British Columbia’s provincial government passed a paint EPR law in 1994 that was operated effectively by an association formed by the paint industry, originally called Paint Care.

The NWPSC was the first coordinated effort by governments in the U.S. to focus on product stewardship and ERP. From the start of the organization, they looked broadly at target products, including electronics, tires, retail apparel, medical wastes, waxed cardboard grocery boxes, and others. To increase local awareness of EPR and spur pilot project implementation of EPR, the NWPSC organized the “Products and the Environment NW” conference in Seattle in 2000 attended by more than 200 people, from both the U.S. and internationally. The attendees were 40 percent business, 40 percent government, 14 percent NGOs, and academics and citizens constituted the remainder.3 Since then, at least 15 more state or regional product stewardship councils have formed in the U.S. and three national product stewardship focused organizations; the Product Stewardship Institute, formed in 2001, Upstream (formerly the Product Policy Institute) in 2003, and most recently, the National Stewardship Action Council in 2015.4

Starting with Paint Stakeholders Including U.S. and Canadian Stakeholders
In 2002, the Product Stewardship Institute (PSI) brought together a group of more than 50 stakeholders to explore the possibility of product stewardship for architectural paints in the U.S. The group of stakeholder was called the Paint Product Stewardship Initiative (PPSI).

The stakeholder group included representation from the U.S. paint industry association (then called the National Paint and Coatings Association), national, and regional paint manufacturers, EPA, paint recycling firms, state, and local governments responsible for waste management, the NWPSC, hazardous waste management companies, and the industry’s Paint Care Association from British Columbia.

An important case study was the successful existing program in British Columbia. It was also influential during the process that the stakeholder group included Canadian private sector paint manufacturers and paint recyclers. This hands-on, current industry experience gave hope that success in the U.S. context might be possible.

HHW Paint and Customer Expectations
From the local solid waste perspective, about half of all HHW delivered to local programs is architectural paints. Oil-based paints are a hazardous waste usually due to flammability, but most of the paint delivered is latex paint.

Customers want to have “one-stop-shopping” when getting rid of their HHW. They want to get rid of paints along with their pesticides, cleaners, automotive fluids, and other toxic materials at one place. So, paints, as the largest single category of HHW, are the “loss-leader” for the rest of the nastier HHW chemicals, which come along for the ride to their local collection point. The problem is that managing the large volume of paint is a significant logistical and financial burden. If paint producers would help manage their end-of-life product, it would likely free up resources to manage the more dangerous and less recyclable types of HHW.

An Uncertain Start
There were clearly skeptics in the PPSI between all the different stakeholders. During this process, I was the lead representative for the NW Product Stewardship Council and for the Washington State Department of Ecology. After one of the earlier meetings on the East Coast, I was walking to my gate at the airport when I heard my name called out. It was a paint industry stakeholder who wanted an informal word with me. They just wanted to let me know that the chance of success was pretty low, and I should not get my hopes up. Was that a kind gesture or an ominous gesture? Did they know something I did not? Was I on a fool’s errand?

Going forward, the local and state government representatives were hoping to share the cost of managing the large volumes of leftover paint that arrived at HHW collection facilities with paint producers. This was a big ask and probably the key reason the government stakeholders were at the table.

Some Encouragement from Canada
One of the positive motivators was that additional Canadian provinces were considering or implementing paint EPR requirements as well as other HHW types. So, the Canadian subsidiaries of U.S.-based paint companies were seeing a changing landscape. In British Columbia, the Paint Care Association broadened its scope to include other HHWs and additional provinces. To reflect those changes their name changed to Product Care Recycling.

Working Through the Unknowns
The PPSI negotiation process spanned meetings across the U.S. for about five years including significant breaks to do research and develop analysis to fill gaps in the groups’ collective knowledge. A key realization was that the group did not have all the answers to decide whether to move beyond a professional discussion.
If the paint industry was to seriously consider creating a paint stewardship system, they had some specific important questions for which none of the stakeholders had the answers. To get the answers, a Memorandum Of Understanding (MOU) was drafted in 2004 and approved by the key stakeholders in 2005. The MOU called for the funding and execution of nine projects.

One of the MOU projects was to answer the question of how old the leftover paint was being collected. This was important because decades earlier mercury was widely used as a paint additive to prevent mildew from growing on painted surfaces. With the current hazardous waste laws, there was concern that if there were a lot of the very old mercury-laden paints returning, that may be a difficult and very expensive waste to manage. Fortunately, it turned out that those very old paints were rarely seen coming into HHW collections, the average age was less than eight years old.5

Another project focused on appropriate language to encourage proper paint purchasing, to minimize generation of leftover paint. There was also a study that examined the existing and projected infrastructure needs and costs to meet the demands of a nationwide leftover paint system. This project estimated the anticipated cost per gallon of paint sold to provide a nationally coordinated paint transportation and recycling system for leftover architectural paints.

Working Towards a National Solution for Leftover Paint
The completion of the projects called for in the 2005 MOU took time to assemble funding and perform the work. After these projects were completed, the stakeholders met to review and discuss findings and possible paths forward. This resulted in a second MOU in 2007 to develop a nationally coordinated system for the management of post-consumer architectural paints. Since then, the American Coatings Association created PaintCare as the implementation arm for paint product stewardship in the U.S., and 10 states and the District of Columbia have passed architectural paint ERP laws. Parallel laws are under consideration in other states.

Oregon passed the first paint stewardship law in 2009. This was followed by California, Colorado, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Maine, Minnesota, Rhode Island, Vermont, and, most recently, Washington State and New York. | WA

David Nightingale, CHMM, S.C., is Principal at Special Waste Associates (Olympia, WA), a company that assists communities in developing or improving HHW and VSQG collection infrastructure and operations. They have visited more than 150 operating HHW collection facilities in North America. As a specialty consulting firm, Special Waste Associates works directly for program sponsors providing independent design review for new or upgrading facilities—from conceptual design through final drawings to create locally-relevant, safer, more efficient and cost-effective collection systems. Special Waste Associates also published the book, HHW Collection Facility Design Guide. David can be reached at (360) 491-2190 or e-mail [email protected].

Full disclosure – Special Waste Associates supports the NW Product Stewardship Council, the Product Stewardship Institute, and the National Stewardship Action Council.

These descriptions of product stewardship and EPR are patterned after the work of the Northwest Product Stewardship Council,
Nash, Jennifer and Christopher Bosso. 2013. “Extended Producer Responsibility in the United States: Full Speed Ahead?” Journal of Industrial Ecology, 17(2): 175-185.
Stitzhal, David, “The Northwest Product Stewardship Council: A Lever Long Enough?”, Pollution Prevention Review, Autumn 2000, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., pp.67-77.
See a listing of North American and some foreign product stewardship organizations at the NW Product Stewardship Council website.
Nightingale, David, Paint Age Study, presented at Product Stewardship
Institute’s Paint Product Stewardship Initiative meeting September 20-21, 2004, Chicago, IL, Northwest Product Stewardship Council’s Paint Advisory Group.
The results were peer reviewed by paint industry representatives as being nationally representative.