Plastic use is on the rise and it isn’t just clogging oceans, it’s burdening municipal recycling systems around the U.S. The costs of collecting and recycling or landfilling plastic waste have gone up since China stopped importing our trash in 2018. All of which explains why states are suddenly advancing a wave of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) bills. EPR laws make manufacturers bear some of the responsibility for the afterlife of their products, either through a fee or regulation or both. They’ve been tried for electronics, mattresses and paint. But now the laws are being repurposed to tackle packaging waste.
Last summer, Maine and Oregon passed laws that require producers to join or finance stewardship organizations that will facilitate the recycling of their products. Maine exempts low-volume producers; Oregon will charge annual fees based on the environmental impacts of a company’s products. Both states’ laws are meant to encourage a reduction in packaging. Massachusetts and Colorado have similar bills grinding their way through the legislative process.
Politicians have pitched EPR as both a way to save on collection and recycling and a tool to reduce plastic creation in the first place. New York Governor Kathy Hochul introduced such a proposal in her 2023 budget, saying it would incentivize producers “to reduce waste … make products that are easier to recycle, and support a circular economy.” But most plastic experts are skeptical. “European countries have had EPR schemes for many years. I haven’t seen any evidence that they’ve meaningfully changed the amount of packaging used, or recycled,” says Julia Attwood, head of sustainable materials at BloombergNEF, a clean energy research group. “They’re just an attempt to recoup some money from packaging producers for the municipalities that badly need it to pay [Materials Recovery Facilities] and recyclers.”