Category: Product stewardship

Packaging generates a lot of waste – now Maine and Oregon want manufacturers to foot the bill for getting rid of it

Packaging for consumer products represents a large share of U.S. solid waste, and barely half of it is recycled. iStock via Getty Images

by Jessica Heiges (University of California, Berkeley) and Kate O’Neill (University of California, Berkeley)

Most consumers don’t pay much attention to the packaging that their purchases come in, unless it’s hard to open or the item is really over-wrapped. But packaging accounts for about 28% of U.S. municipal solid waste. Only some 53% of it ends up in recycling bins, and even less is actually recycled: According to trade associations, at least 25% of materials collected for recycling in the U.S. are rejected and incinerated or sent to landfills instead.

Local governments across the U.S. handle waste management, funding it through taxes and user fees. Until 2018 the U.S. exported huge quantities of recyclable materials, primarily to China. Then China banned most foreign scrap imports. Other recipient countries like Vietnam followed suit, triggering waste disposal crises in wealthy nations.

Some U.S. states have laws that make manufacturers responsible for particularly hard-to-manage products, such as electronic waste, car batteries, mattresses and tires, when those goods reach the end of their useful lives.

Now, Maine and Oregon have enacted the first state laws making companies that create consumer packaging, such as cardboard cartons, plastic wrap and food containers, responsible for the recycling and disposal of those products, too. Maine’s law takes effect in mid-2024, and Oregon’s follows in mid-2025.

These measures shift waste management costs from customers and local municipalities to producers. As researchers who study waste and ways to reduce it, we are excited to see states moving to engage stakeholders, shift responsibility, spur innovation and challenge existing extractive practices. [View chart illustrating how much consumer product packaging is recycled]

Holding producers accountable

The Maine and Oregon laws are the latest applications of a concept called extended producer responsibility, or EPR. Swedish academic Thomas Lindhqvist framed this idea in 1990 as a strategy to decrease products’ environmental impacts by making manufacturers responsible for the goods’ entire life cycles – especially for takeback, recycling and final disposal.

Producers don’t always literally take back their goods under EPR schemes. Instead, they often make payments to an intermediary organization or agency, which uses the money to help cover the products’ recycling and disposal costs. Making producers cover these costs is intended to give them an incentive to redesign their products to be less wasteful.

The idea of extended producer responsibility has driven regulations governing management of electronic waste, such as old computers, televisions and cellphones, in the European Union, China and 25 U.S. states. Similar measures have been adopted or proposed in nations including Kenya, Nigeria, Chile, Argentina and South Africa.

Scrap export bans in China and other countries have given new energy to EPR campaigns. Activist organizations and even some corporations are now calling for producers to become accountable for more types of waste, including consumer packaging.

Packaging helps sell consumer products, and consumers are starting to demand more sustainable containers.

What the state laws require

The Maine and Oregon laws define consumer packaging as material likely found in the average resident’s waste bin, such as containers for food and home or personal care products. They exclude packaging intended for long-term storage (over five years), beverage containers, paint cans and packaging for drugs and medical devices.

Maine’s law incorporates some core EPR principles, such as setting a target recycling goal and giving producers an incentive to use more sustainable packaging. Oregon’s law includes more groundbreaking components. It promotes the idea of a right to repair, which gives consumers access to information that they need to fix products they purchase. And it creates a “Truth in Labeling” task force to assess whether producers are making misleading claims about how recyclable their products are.

The Oregon law also requires a study to assess how bio-based plastics can affect compost waste streams, and it establishes a statewide collection list to harmonize what types of materials can be recycled across the state. Studies show that contamination from poor sorting is one of the main reasons why recyclables often are rejected.

Infographic on paint recycling in California.
California paint recycling data from PaintCare, a nonprofit stewardship organization that runs paint recycling programs across the U.S. PaintCare

Some extended producer responsibility systems, such as those for paint and mattresses, are funded by consumers, who pay an added fee at the point of sale that is itemized on their receipt. The fee supports the products’ eventual recycling or disposal.

In contrast, the Maine and Oregon laws require producers to pay fees to the states, based on how much packaging material they sell in those states. Both laws also include rules designed to limit producers’ influence over how the states use these funds.

Will these laws reduce waste?

There’s no clear consensus yet on the effectiveness of EPR. In some cases it has produced results: For instance, Connecticut’s mattress recycling rate rose from 8.7% to 63.5% after the state instituted a takeback law funded by fees paid at the point of sale. On a national scale, the Product Stewardship Institute estimates that since 2007 U.S. paint EPR programs have reused and recycled almost 24 million gallons of paint, created 200 jobs and saved governments and taxpayers over $240 million.

Critics argue that these programs need strong regulation and monitoring to ensure that corporations take their responsibilities seriously – and especially to prevent them from passing costs on to consumers, which requires enforceable accountability measures. Observers also argue that producers can have too much influence within stewardship organizations, which they warn may undermine enforcement or the credibility of the law.

Few studies have been done so far to assess the long-term effects of extended producer responsibility programs, and those that exist do not show conclusively whether these initiatives actually lead to more sustainable products. Maine and Oregon are small progressive states and are not major centers for the packaging industry, so the impact of their new laws remains to be seen.

However, these measures are promising models. As Martin Bourque, executive director of Berkeley’s Ecology Center and an internationally known expert on plastics and recycling, told us, “Maine’s approach of charging brands and manufacturers to pay cities for recycling services is an improvement over programs that give all of the operational and material control to producers, where the fox is directly in charge of the hen house.”

We believe the Maine and Oregon laws could inspire jurisdictions like California that are considering similar measures or drowning under waste plastic to adopt EPR themselves. Waste reduction efforts across the U.S. took hits from foreign scrap bans and then from the COVID-19 pandemic, which spurred greater use of disposable products and packaging. We see producer-pay schemes like the Maine and Oregon laws as a promising response that could help catalyze broader progress toward a less wasteful economy.

Jessica Heiges, PhD Candidate in Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, University of California, Berkeley and Kate O’Neill, Professor of Global Environmental Politics, University of California, Berkeley

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Predicting Policy for Sustainable Materials

Download the document.

Over the past few years, sustainability has become a priority for innovation teams in materials and chemicals as well as consumer-facing industries like apparel, food, and beauty. Policy is increasingly the core driver of sustainability efforts. We developed a qualitative framework to assess policies, based on impact and probability of adoption. Extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes and taxes on unrecyclable plastic stand out in terms of total impact, while single-use plastic bans are most likely to proliferate.

Maine passes nation’s first law to make big companies pay for the cost of recycling their packaging

Read the full story in the Boston Globe.

After a quarter-century, a Boston-based nonprofit scores big win with nation’s first law making companies pay to recycle the waste they produce.

Future perspectives on the role of extended producer responsibility within a circular economy: A Delphi study using the case of the Netherlands

Campbell-Johnston, K., de Munck, M., Vermeulen, W. J. V., & Backes, C. (2021). “Future perspectives on the role of extended producer responsibility within a circular economy: A Delphi study using the case of the Netherlands”. Business Strategy and the Environment, 1– 14. https://doi.org/10.1002/bse.2856 [open access]

Abstract: Extended producer responsibility (EPR) is a proposed policy approach to promoting the circular economy (CE) within the European Union. This research used a policy Delphi to explore perspectives on improving EPR policies to further contribute to the CE goals of the Netherlands. Both the potential improvement and critical reflections discussed by CE and EPR experts and practitioners from this study contribute to a more detailed understanding of the future governance of CE practices. We present various activities to improve EPR and insights from Delphi participants that emerged from the study. This paper shows that whilst actors agree, in essence, that there is a need for modifying EPR, what the specific changes to the form are and to

EPR in the US can’t directly follow the European model; it must avoid a producer monopoly

Read the full story at Waste Dive.

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s Neil Seldman responds to an Ellen MacArthur Foundation statement describing EPR as “a necessary part of the solution to packaging waste and pollution.”

EPA launches stewardship program to reduce PFAS in the marketplace

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is announcing a stewardship program to encourage the voluntary withdrawal of previously granted low volume exemptions (LVEs) for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Historically, some new PFAS have been allowed to enter the market through LVEs. The goal of the PFAS LVE Stewardship Program is to stop the ongoing manufacture of PFAS under previously approved LVEs which have not gone through the full pre-manufacture review process under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). EPA will also hold a webinar on July 29, 2021 to provide an overview of the program.

There are approximately 600 PFAS with currently granted LVEs. Through this program, EPA intends to work with trade associations, non-governmental organizations, and companies to encourage voluntary withdrawal of the LVEs. This new program is based on a 2016 outreach effort which resulted in companies withdrawing more than half of the 82 long-chain PFAS LVEs that were targeted for voluntary withdrawal at the time.

To participate in the program, companies with previously granted PFAS LVEs may choose to voluntarily withdraw their LVEs and certify that they will no longer manufacture or import that PFAS. Alternatively, companies may choose to voluntarily withdraw their LVE following submission and review of a pre-manufacture notice, which will provide for a robust safety review and the imposition of appropriate and enforceable protections for human health and the environment. EPA will provide recognition of program participants on its website.

The establishment of the PFAS LVE Stewardship Program follows an announcement in April that new LVE submissions for PFAS would likely be denied since a sufficiently robust safety review is unlikely to be possible in the 30 days the law allows given the potential hazards associated with various subclasses of PFAS and the need to consider their potential persistence in the environment.

Shifts in attitudes on EPR could mean quicker policy change: Circularity 21

Read the full story in Waste Dive.

The U.S. Plastics Pact road map and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s extended producer responsibility endorsements could be signs that EPR is coming into its own — as long as policy can catch up.

Leading businesses call for adoption of Extended Producer Responsibility for packaging

Read the full story at Packaging Europe.

Today, for the first time, more than 100 businesses in the packaging value chain, together with more than 50 other organisations, have publicly announced their support for the adoption of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR).

The organisations say that that without EPR, packaging collection and recycling is unlikely to be meaningfully scaled and tens of millions of tonnes of packaging will continue to end up in the environment every year.

statement, published today by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, has been signed by leading brands and retailers (including Beiersdorf, Danone, Diageo, Ferrero, FrieslandCampina, H&M, Henkel, Inditex, L’Oréal, Mars, Mondi, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Pick n Pay, Reckitt, Schwarz Group, The Coca-Cola Company, Unilever and Walmart), manufacturers and recyclers (including Borealis, Berry Global, DS Smith, Mondi, Tetra Pak, Indorama Ventures and Veolia), investors such as European Investment Bank and Closed Loop Partners, and NGOs including WWF, The Recycling Partnership, The Pew Charitable Trusts and As You Sow.

California legislators take aim at plastics with new bill package, including contested producer responsibility plan

Read the full story in Waste Dive.

California lawmakers have reintroduced SB 54, a bill that would require all single-use disposable packaging, including food service packaging, to be recyclable or compostable by January 2032. The bill debuted as part of a unified Democrat-led package of almost a dozen other plastic waste-related bills on March 9.

As currently written, the bill leaves out a major part of previous versions, which had required single-use plastic packaging to have a 75% recycling or composting rate by 2032. Bill sponsors anticipate SB 54 will undergo more updates as the legislative session goes on. 

Other new bills aim to standardize recycling labeling on packaging, set minimum recycled content standards for thermoform packaging, and prohibit the state from counting exported plastic scrap in its recycling rate calculations if it is landfilled, burned or dumped.

An American Version of EPR

Read the full story at Waste360.

“Make the manufacturers pay” has become a popular solution for recycling’s problems. It seems simple after all, that if producers pay for recycling instead of local governments, taxpayer money can be used on other services.  Moreover, by “internalizing” the recycling cost, manufacturers will find ways to make their packaging and products more easily recyclable.  Sounds great doesn’t it?

These product stewardship laws, also known as “EPR” for “extended producer responsibility”, are somewhat common in the United States.Thirty-three states have laws covering products that are hard to recycle or contain hazardous constituents. They include, for instance, electronics, paint, carpets, mattresses and mercury-containing thermostats. The programs have been somewhat successful in increasing recycling of those products but have done little to make them more easily recyclable or otherwise change their design. 

Product stewardship for packaging and paper products can be found throughout Europe, in five of Canada’s ten provinces, and in other parts of the world. They cannot be found in any American state. Perhaps, that is, until now. Legislators in nine states are likely to consider statewide producer responsibility legislation this year.  But as they try to establish these programs, they will struggle with the reality that, as the head of the Product Policy Institute said years ago, this type of EPR is “simple in concept, complex in execution”.

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