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Waste Not, Want Not: Extended Producer Responsibility Would Require Manufacturers to Collect and Recycle Packaging

Recycling is stuck in the Seventies. EPR agreements would boost efficiency and bring recycling up to date.

Recycling has been around in the United States since the 1970s. It’s such an old and integral part of the environmental movement that activists today think of it as fusty and boring. Surely there are more exciting, innovative solutions to today’s problems!

It’s that sort of thinking that has caused recycling to stay trapped in a 1970s system that is expensive and inefficient. Recycling rates have increased steadily over time, but not as quickly as consumption has, and so the recycling rates today for even the most recyclable goods are well below 50%. Perhaps more importantly, we’re continuing to send $11.4 billion worth of valuable material—stuff like aluminum and PET plastic that there’s real market demand for—to landfills every year.

That statistic comes from a report released today by the As You Sow foundation, which is working with several companies, nonprofits, and state legislators to push for Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), which it deems an upgrade to the current U.S. recycling system.

Whereas recycling today is paid for by consumers and facilitated by municipal governments, with EPR, the companies that create and use packaging would be required to collect and recycle it. This sort of system has had widespread success in Europe. In the United States, it was initially proposed by beverage companies (namely Nestle Waters and, less publicly, Coca Cola), which wanted to see PET plastic recycling increase without the passage of more so-called bottle bills that require companies to fund container deposits in some states. The plan has since expanded to include the grocery industry as well, with the idea that the more people are involved, the lower the cost for everyone and the higher recycling rates across the board.

While the beverage industry has been called out for its cans and bottles for years, other grocery manufacturers have not, and are thus less inclined to be onboard with EPR. The beverage companies, in addition to needing to respond to critics, like EPR because it gives them a lower cost on recycled PET, enabling them to use more recycled content in bottles without increasing their costs.

“We have found that packaging is the largest part of our environmental footprint, so from a sustainability perspective, we have an incentive to increase our use of rPET [recycled PET], but can’t because of the limited supply and high cost,” says Michael Washburn, director of sustainability for Nestle Waters, North America.

For grocery manufacturers, there’s less of an incentive; EPR is seen as an additional, unnecessary expense. "A lot of the big grocery companies are sitting on their hands, waiting to see if this will become a big enough issue that they have to deal with it," says Conrad Mackerron of the As You Sow foundation. Mackerron authored the foundation’s report and is leading shareholder actions with companies such as Kraft and Procter & Gamble in support of EPR. “Part of my job is to make sure it does become a big enough deal,” he says.

So far As You Sow has gotten 25% of Kraft shareholders to support EPR and is planning a Procter & Gamble vote on the subject in October. In the meantime, Mackerron, Washburn and EPR’s many other supporters are out meeting with both grocery manufacturers and retailers in the hopes of convincing them of EPR’s benefits. "They need to get at least one grocery manufacturer or retailer on board for the state legislation to go through," Mackerron says.

The plan is to start with an EPR system in a state that has robust curbside recycling (Minnesota and Maryland have been discussed), but not a bottle bill that would be disrupted, pilot it, roll it out to other states from there, and eventually have a unified, national EPR system.

Photo (cc) Flickr user Gribiche

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