EPR, which shifts recycling responsibility from taxpayers to the hands of producers, has the potential to create a more efficient, effective, and cohesive recycling system, all while creating the best solutions with the nuances of plastic production in mind.
By Jen Ronk
Through some of the most tumultuous moments in history, the public and private sectors have come together to address the most urgent issues of the day. Fast-tracking vaccine production during the COVID-19 pandemic is a timely example that has touched millions of lives. In other words, collaboration with like-minded partners has guided us through our darkest moments, by allowing us to imagine better together.
This kind of collaboration and partnership must be part of the solution to climate change, especially when it comes to reducing waste and, by extension, carbon emissions. In 2021, only 21 percent of the PET, PP, and HDPE rigid plastic packaging in the U.S. was recycled, posing a threat to ambitious sustainability goals and requiring greater cooperation for progress.
Across the country, lawmakers and industry experts are working closely on a new kind of legislation that has the potential to transform the way we recycle. In 2021, the first-of-its-kind Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) bill in the U.S. was passed, paving the way for three more states, with more certainly to follow, in an effort to tackle one of the biggest waste challenges we face today.
EPR, which shifts recycling responsibility from taxpayers to the hands of producers, has the potential to create a more efficient, effective, and cohesive recycling system, all while creating the best solutions with the nuances of plastic production in mind. That is why, to get better results, industry professionals need to be included in the legislative process, allowing consumers and producers to get the most out of new recycling policy.
EPR in the United States
While EPR in the U.S. is a relatively new phenomenon, other regions of the world like Europe and the UK have been using it to their advantage for years. Similar legislation to that in the U.S. states has supported an increase in recycling rates to upwards of 80 percent in some cases.
We support EPR legislation only when it addresses the root problem, is flexible, and is fair. This means that funds from the legislation should be dedicated to improving recycling infrastructure, enable continued innovation, discourage free riders, those who rely on the efforts of others to recycle, and be applied in a material neutral way to advance a circular economy for all materials.
To date, four states have passed plastics focused EPR legislation requiring producers to take a more active role in recycling. These include California (June 2022), Colorado (June 2022), Maine (July 2021). and Oregon (August 2021). Each bill focuses on transforming local recycling and many create PROs, or Producer Responsibility Organizations. These PROs take an active role in innovating more recyclable materials, investing in recycling infrastructure, and contributing to the overall progress of the legislation.
As these bills undergo the rule making process and are implemented by the various state agencies, there are many details that will need to be ironed out to make them effective, requiring continued cooperation that creates solutions that work for producers, consumers, and the planet.
Case Study: SB 54
The most recent and most ambitious EPR bill in the U.S. is in California. Passed in June 2022, the law aims to reduce single use plastic packaging production 25 percent by 2032, ensure that 100 percent of single use packaging is recyclable or compostable by 2032, and ensure that 65 percent of that single use packaging is recycled or composted by 2032.
In crafting this law, the authors considered interests from environmental groups, producers like Dow, brand owners, and many more stakeholders across California’s recycling systems. By allowing these experts to collaborate with lawmakers and other interested parties, the EPR program has created ambitious goals, supported by a broad group of stakeholders that will lead to bold actions to reduce waste and increase circularity.
For example, the bill creates an industry-led PRO responsible for raising recycling rates to the 65 percent goal. The PRO will not only promote recycling across the state, but also design a fee structure to encourage companies to create packaging that meets consumer needs while being easier to recycle.
The process of passing this bill was long and filled with compromise, but in the end, lawmakers, the environmental community, and industry representatives were able to carve a path that allows California to improve its recycling infrastructure. And because of this collaboration, more expensive and less effective approaches like the plastic-only ballot measure was removed from the November ballot—a win for the industry and for everyday consumers of plastic.
Working together has helped not only to decrease costs for consumers in California, but also enabled ambitious recycling goals to be set up for greater success. Experts at Dow and beyond understood exactly what it took in this circumstance to reach California’s sustainability goals and the type of innovation needed to eventually reach circularity. Their expertise and experience with partnerships large and small has given them insights into the best ways to find practical solutions.
This collaboration in California illustrates how we can move forward and imagine better together. We will continue to do so again and again as part of Dow’s mission to create products that are good for both people and the planet. By considering the nuances of plastic production, we can continue to pass EPR legislation that allows us to enjoy the conveniences of plastic, while also building a circular economy that reduces waste and the
effects of climate change.
The Future of EPR
So, what does the future of EPR legislation look like across the forty-six states that have yet to pass a bill of this kind? There is little doubt that EPR will continue in states looking to improve fractured recycling systems. Federal EPR legislation could help support that consistency across the country. We will continue to support policies at the national level to transform waste management systems globally and reach towards a circular economy.
But in absence of a federal law, state legislators will need to continue working closely with industry professionals and other stakeholders to determine best practices working towards a common goal of growing a
circular economy for all materials. There can be no real progress on these laws without compromise between those who understand materials best, environmental advocates, and lawmakers.
Materials science companies across the globe have committed to sustainability not only to further business objectives, but also for the betterment of the planet and all of us who inhabit it. Achieving the ambitious goals we have set is within reach when we commit to working together to do it. Through compromise and understanding, we can create EPR solutions that are fair, flexible, and produce tangible solutions for waste across the country. | WA
Jen Ronk is Senior Sustainability Manager for Dow North America Packaging & Specialty Plastics. In her 30+ year career working to make the world a little bit better, she has done everything from cleaning up environmental contamination to installing solar panels. At Dow, she works with a great team of people and collaborates with a wide rage of external organizations, because if she has learned anything it is that we can go more together. Jennifer can be reached at www.linkedin.com/in/jennifer-ronk. For more information, visit www.dow.com.