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As plastic piles up, bills that shift the financial cost of recycling to the producers are gaining traction. The results have been mixed this legislative season, but history suggests extended producer responsibility bills are ultimately successful.
A widely watched bill in Washington state that would have required companies to cover the costs of recycling paper and plastic packaging failed in committee last month. But similar legislation is moving forward—incrementally—in other parts of the country.
These recycling bills, called extended producer responsibility (EPR) bills, shift the financial burden of recycling to the producers of materials that are difficult to recycle. Think chip bags or yogurt cups, the everyday packaging that ends up in the trash rather than the recycling bin.
As concerns among the public over plastic bags tumbling down sidewalks and microplastics drifting around the oceans have increased, states have turned to EPR legislation. China’s “Green Fence” policy has also driven the push. The country used to purchase recycled materials from the United States. But in 2013, China severely restricted the materials it would accept, no longer taking low-quality stock.
“Lack of markets means increased costs,” said Scott Cassel, founder of the Product Stewardship Institute. “Those were passed on to the municipalities, and it went sky high.”
About a dozen states are considering or have considered EPR bills this year, Cassel said. EPR legislation can focus on a variety of products, not just packaging. Dozens of states have EPR laws for electronics, batteries, paint and medications. Packaging bills, however, have only been gaining traction in the last few years.
Last month, for example, Maryland’s legislature passed an EPR bill for packaging, which is now awaiting Gov. Wes Moore’s signature. After many amendments transformed it, the bill doesn’t implement a detailed EPR program, but instead prompts a statewide needs assessment to be completed by next summer. The bill calls for a third-party consultant to analyze the state’s current recycling systems and weigh the costs and benefits of an EPR program. An advisory council would then make recommendations to the governor about how the initiative should operate.
An EPR bill for packaging is being considered in New Jersey. Bills in New York are also active, and Gov. Kathy Hochul has been vocal about her support for them. They’re what Surfrider, an ocean protection nonprofit, have lauded as “well thought out and effective EPR for packaging programs.”
Packaging laws can include requiring producers to use a certain amount of recycled materials in their products and having producers pay for state recycling services. These programs are already common in other parts of the world, including Canada and Europe.
The Washington Recycling and Packaging Act garnered widespread attention for its ambition before the latest iteration of it died in committee. Among its inclusions, the bill would have required companies to fund recycling services. But some stakeholders, particularly waste management companies, were concerned about how the legislation would affect business and increase product prices for consumers.
Research has shown, however, that EPR laws have little impact on consumer-facing costs.
While it may seem like advocates are fighting an uphill battle in getting EPR legislation for packaging passed, it’s not difficult to imagine a future where the legislation moves a little bit easier.
In the early 2000s, he said, there were fewer than 10 EPR laws around the country, and all dealt with batteries. Today, there are more than 131 ERP laws across 33 states that outline producer responsibilities for more than a dozen products.
After the wave of electronic waste EPR legislation, states honed in on paint. Approximately 10% of purchased paint goes unused, sitting in basements and garages around the country, Cassel said. The Product Stewardship Institute worked with the American Coating Association to develop PaintCare, a nonprofit funded by paint manufacturers. PaintCare collects unused paint and finds companies to purchase it, often allowing consumers to drop off unused paint at local retailers. Ten states and Washington, D.C. have adopted EPR laws to reduce paint waste, saving municipalities money—more than $250 million, according to Cassel—as they no longer have to look for ways to safely dispose of the products.
More recently, pharmaceutical EPR legislation has garnered support in an effort to keep medications out of the hands of children and other household members that could be harmed.
Because existing EPR laws have a track record to back them up, there’s less resistance when they’re introduced today, Cassel said. The same could be true of packaging EPR laws in the years ahead. Already producers are more willing to come to the negotiating table.
“It took a while for the political will in the United States, at the state level, to be willing and able to introduce and enact these laws,” Cassel said. “I think that the groundwork that we had set from 2000 was fertile soil for the packaging EPR bills to finally take hold.”
Molly Bolan is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.