As UPSTREAM fans may know, we’ve been involved in the EPR Packaging debates in the United States for nearly four years now. While there has been significant opposition from many consumer brands during this time, there has been a groundswell of support building from local governments, as well as an openness from some waste and recycling businesses to this policy approach.
Recently, there were also signs of a change in position from some consumer brands. In 2014, several of the largest consumer goods companies and packaging suppliers announced two voluntary product stewardship efforts Walmart’s Closed Loop Fund and the Recycling Partnership. Although they can be seen as an attempt to stave off EPR legislation, these new initiatives mark the first time that a critical number of consumer brands have publicly admitted that they bear some responsibility for boosting packaging recycling in the United States. These new developments in the local and national arenas are changing the terms of the debate and the policy framework in a number of states with mature EPR discussions. Here’s why:
Everyone – from city recycling coordinators to packaging suppliers to even the most cynical representatives from consumer brands – wants to boost packaging recycling and prevent litter. It’s embarrassing that our country tosses more than half of all generated packaging materials into the garbage.
The good news is that we know how to do this. Top recycling research firms have issued numerous reports showing that a variety of policy tools and approaches can increase recycling while also preventing litter, especially if they are pursued together. The grandmothers of EPR legislation in the United States are the bottle bills adopted by 10 states in the 1970s and 1980s. They are industry-managed programs that use financial incentives to achieve high packaging recovery rates while preventing litter.
But they only cover beverage containers and the beverage industry has fought them tooth and nail. Other proven policies can achieve high packaging recovery rates as well. These include universal cart-based curbside recycling, statewide Pay-As-You-Throw, landfill bans on recyclable materials, away-from-home recycling infrastructure, robust outreach and education, and investments in materials recovery facilities (or MRFs- where recyclables are sorted into saleable commodities).
The bad news is that many of these ideas cost money. In addition, with the exception of aluminum, nearly all other packaging materials cost more to collect and process than you get from selling the scrap. The bottom line is that increasing recycling requires that someone picks up the tab.
Sadly, in these tough economic times, most local governments are either broke or unwilling to invest in recycling. Funding for recycling and litter cleanup competes with funding needs for police and fire protection, schools, and other essential municipal services. On the business side, the waste management and recycling companies will only invest in recycling infrastructure if it will clearly improve their bottom line.
Given these on-the-ground realities, recycling and sustainable materials management advocates are looking to EPR as a way to get the consumer goods companies – which put packaging into the marketplace – to pay their fair share for managing it. Of course, the devil is in the details, and the challenge has been wrestling through much of the baggage wrapped up in preconceived notions about what EPR is, and what it means for the interests of impacted stakeholders.
In the end, it all comes down to money and control. Most of the stakeholders in the recycling supply chain – local governments, collectors, processors and end-users (including many packaging suppliers) – want the funding from producer fees to optimize recycling systems. However, over the last four years, much of the US discussions and subsequent controversy focused on a 100% producer-financed and controlled recycling system and the massive power-shift inherent in this approach.
While there are pros and cons to this approach, it is clear that local governments and waste and recycling industries want the investment, but not the loss of control. Producers, on the other hand, view fees over which they have little or no control as taxes.
A shared responsibility approach – which balances investment from producer fees on packaging with taxpayer and/or garbage ratepayer funding, with shared control among key stakeholders toward achieving robust recycling and litter prevention goals – may be the most politically expedient step towards achieving sound EPR policy in the United States. Stay tuned!