Extended producer responsibility (EPR) legislation for packaging in the United States is gaining momentum as a policy tool to fund local waste management by shifting the cost burdens of packaging waste from municipalities to producers. An EPR program consists of fees assessed on the product manufacturer or producer for packaging used in the market and allocates the money to pay for the packaging waste recovery, recycling, and landfill disposal.
In February the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators announced a coordinated effort of nine states to pursue EPR legislation for plastic packaging, with legislators from each state already introducing similar bills this year. This follows the “Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2020” that was introduced in the US Congress seeking a nationwide EPR program for packaging. With the escalation of trash accumulation and management costs leading to cancellations of recycling programs, there is growing confidence that 2021 could be the year when EPR for packaging gets signed into law.
US waste generation and recycling rates and economics have reached a point where EPR for packaging is a necessity to address market challenges and to stimulate improvements in waste prevention and management. But EPR legislation being written – and influenced – today seems to be missing greater alignment to circular economy principles that prioritize source reduction, including reusable packaging. US EPR policy needs a more systemic approach to solving our waste and pollution crisis. This means focusing on the root causes of all single use packaging waste and designing out waste in how we produce, distribute, and consume products.
Circularity is about eliminating waste as a first option by keeping products at their maximum use and highest value, placing emphasis on packaging’s durability, reusability, and repairability. Packaging products should also be designed for remanufacturing and recyclability when the products are no longer suitable for reuse or repair. US EPR legislation being consider today is more about strengthening the flow, recovery, and economics of waste materials. This is a fine but limiting goal, and it should be a part of a broader strategy for systems change favoring product longevity and value. Without a strategy centered on circular principles, we run the risk of EPR being a tactic dealing primarily with linear inadequacies.
Here are four ways in which US EPR for packaging can better align with the circular economy:
- Exempt reusable packaging from the scope of EPR covered products. Reuse is the innermost preferred activity loop in a circular economy cycle where waste is avoided. Reusable products do not enter the waste stream since the valued assets are under management by private sector parties. Producers operating a reusable packaging system have already in place the economic motivations and operational processes to recover and return the reusable products for their continuous purpose. Using EPR to incentivize source reduction would go a long way if reusable packaging products were clearly not subject to the regulatory scheme and fees.
- Treat waste prevention (reuse) differently from waste management (recycling). Reuse models and outcomes are vastly different from recycling; therefore, performance benchmarks should be separate and weighted accordingly. EPR legislation under development from the States of Washington (Senate Bill 5022) and Oregon (House Bill 2592), for example, are proposing goals “by 2030, 75 percent (of covered products) must be reused or recycled, ten percent of which must be reused.” This breakout of reuse requirement is a step in the right direction, but not separate or aggressive enough to accelerate systems change over the next nine years.
- Establish EPR for all single-use packaging materials and not just for plastics. Circularity is a holistic transformation from the linear take-make-waste model; it is not a material change making something more recycled or recyclable. There is no doubt that tackling plastic waste and pollution is urgent, but plastic is just one material responsible for 12.2% of the total municipal solid waste generated in the US. An example legislative initiative seemingly moving away from circular principles to plastic policy is California AB1080/SB54. In 2019 and 2020 the bill was called “the California Circular Economy and Plastics Pollution Reduction Act,” and SB54 in 2021 has been reintroduced as simply the “Plastic Pollution Producer Responsibility Act.” EPR would be a bolder move towards circularity if it covered all single-use packaging products irrespective of the material type.
- Invest in reuse operations in addition to recycling facilities. Disbursement of funds from EPR should also support local infrastructures and networks for waste prevention activities and services. Grants or no-interest loans can be offered to enterprises that open and operate the collection, sortation, cleaning, repair, and return of reusable packaging products. Public policy that directly supports scaling reuse operations would have a greater impact on economically sound and environmentally effective waste diversion. Building and expanding reuse services are part of the projected $4.5 trillion business opportunity from a circular economy.
European nations have implemented EPR for packaging for years and have achieved significantly higher waste recovery and recycling rates than the US. These EPR models in Europe are often cited as examples in building the case for EPR in the US. Yet today the EU is taking broader action using the Circular Economy Action Plan as the strategy to reinforce EPR, and not the other way around. If US policymakers look to the European experience for EPR, we can take a learned short cut to a more advanced and impactful circular policy plan with an EPR component.
US companies are embracing the transition from a linear to a circular economy, and businesses are adopting circular economy practices. Better alignment of EPR policy to circular economy principles is a timely move in which to spend political capital, time, and resources. Catalyzing action through US EPR policy needs a top-down approach starting at the height of the waste hierarchy pyramid prioritizing source reduction. We need to make sure that EPR for packaging is not just a good tactic for increasing material recovery and recycling rates, but also a circular economy strategy to stimulate real change in preventing waste creation in the first place.
President & CEO
Reusable Packaging Association