EPR for Packaging in the U.S. – the Landscape

It is widely known that the route to producer responsibility in the U.S. has been markedly different from the route taken in Europe and, to a degree, Canada. In the U.S., issues were prioritized based largely on toxicity. When the Product Stewardship Institute (PSI) held its first national product stewardship forum in 2000, we asked state and local solid waste management officials across the country what they considered their biggest waste management problems. By far, the number one issue was electronics, followed by mercury products and paint. For this reason, in the U.S., we focused on these products as the top issues.

Europe, however, started with Germany’s packaging law in 1990. Over the past 20 years, more than 30 European countries have adopted extended producer responsibility (EPR) programs for packaging. Four Canadian provinces have now enacted packaging EPR laws. And the U.S. is still building the groundwork for action.

Here is how the landscape is shaping up for EPR for packaging in the U.S.  Proponents of EPR include, not surprisingly, state and local government agencies that started the U.S. product stewardship movement. However, all governments are interested, not just those in progressive states. The cost of managing waste has become a big issue for government, and they are ready to act. Governments are interested in saving money, but are also concerned about the loss of control over the collection of recyclables from households. PSI has been convening its state and local government members to figure out the type of EPR system they want as a model in the U.S.  Other EPR supporters are, also not surprisingly, environmental groups. And that is where the current support for EPR for packaging and printed materials stands at the moment.

There are some exceptions among industry. Nestle Waters North America (NWNA) has stepped out as a major proponent of EPR, and PSI is working with them, among many others. NWNA wants to show that EPR can result in increased supply of recycled materials on par with the rates achieved by beverage deposit laws. This position is not to be confused with the position of others in the beverage industry that developed the EPR packaging bill in Vermont in 2010 that included EPR only if the state’s 40-year old container deposit law was repealed. That strategic misstep has confused many people into believing that EPR is synonymous with a repeal of the bottle bill, and has created great animosity among stakeholders. But it has gotten people talking.

“If success is measured by the achieved recycling levels, then member states with strong producer responsibility systems have successfully increased overall rates.” 2005 European Commission Study on Packaging Waste and Options to Strengthen Prevention and Re-use of Packaging

Consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies have, for the most part, been uninterested in engaging in a discussion about EPR for packaging in the U.S., even though their counterparts are operating under the exact same systems in Europe and Canada. Sierra Fletcher, our Director of Policy and Programs and I spent four meetings over nine months with representatives from P&G, Kraft, Unilever, Colgate-Palmolive, ConAgra, and other CPG companies in meetings held by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. These companies, in general, believe that we can increase recycling significantly solely by optimizing the current system. In my ten years of engaging brand owners in EPR, we know that this is a necessary step in the process because the existing system can always be made more efficient, and that reduces cost. But it is always only a stage in the process of moving toward an understanding that EPR, and perhaps other systems, are also needed. Only two CPG companies – Estee Lauder and SC Johnson – have engaged PSI in a real discussion on EPR. Estee Lauder is a big fan. SC Johnson does not believe it is the right solution.

The rest of the stakeholder groups are in learning mode, and this is who PSI is talking to.

End users of glass, plastic, paper, aluminum, and other metals – so called commodities – have started to warm to the idea of learning about EPR. The Association of Post-Consumer Plastics Recyclers invited me to speak at its annual meeting in June. I found an engaged and interested group of plastics recyclers that were desperate for ways to increase the recycling of plastics. They want more supply of high quality recycled plastics at the best possible price. They are looking at all solutions, and their staff and policy committee smartly have begun to learn about EPR and how it can help them. Have they embraced EPR whole-hog? No. But do they think EPR might be part of the solution for more business and more jobs. Absolutely.

Plastics recyclers are leading the commodity groups in understanding that quantity, quality, and price can possibly be achieved by EPR. But aluminum is not far behind. I just got back from a trip to Chicago where the Aluminum Association had its annual meeting. I spoke to aluminum industry executives about what EPR is and isn’t, and how EPR and the bottle bill can live together or apart but that the decision should be up to the brand owner as to how they will meet aggressive performance goals. Aluminum industry representatives asked all the right questions, and we have begun a healthy discussion.

Representatives of glass and paper commodities are still warming to the idea of even having an in-depth discussion about EPR. But PSI is talking to them as well. A key concern of the paper industry is why they should face the potential transactional costs of a shift to EPR when their material is already recycled at a high rate.

We are also having discussions with waste management companies, which view EPR as a potential threat to their business models. These companies have invested in recycling and waste disposal trucks and facilities, and in a business strategy that will need to be flexible to respond to the changes ahead with EPR.

Other groups are pushing the conversation as well. The newly formed PAC-NEXT, based in Canada but working with retailers, CPG companies, and related businesses that operate across North America, has invited PSI to engage with its corporate members with the goal of helping the packaging industry transition toward a world without packaging waste. PSI is co-chairing a PAC-NEXT project to develop best practices for post-consumer material recovery, including EPR, which will lead toward harmonization of programs in North America. And Future 500 out of San Francisco is selectively engaging stakeholders on EPR in the U.S.

Packaging and printed materials is a product area that is much different from others we have tackled in the U.S. – yet at the same time it shares with other products the fact that our traditional waste management system has relied on the patchwork of local and state governments to clean up after us. A solution will not be achieved overnight, but we are starting to build it. There are many stakeholders with multiple interests that need to be melded into a cohesive agreement that is sustainable. These stakeholders are not at the same place in their interest and willingness to develop a model EPR bill in the U.S. But these discussions are taking place, and coalitions are forming.

But the first thing that needs to happen is that people learn the facts, and that is where PSI is spending its time – educating all stakeholders about EPR so that they understand how EPR will result in less waste, more recycling, more jobs for the recycling industry, and lower costs for government. This is all about how good government and the right regulations CREATE jobs. It is time for this reality to be heard loud and clear in America.

Check out the article in Plastics News reporting on my presentation to the plastics recycling industry. Although there are a few factual errors in the article, it will give you a good sense of what I said, and about how EPR can increase material supply and quality, and lower costs.

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One thought on “EPR for Packaging in the U.S. – the Landscape

  1. Greetings! Very helpful advice within this article!
    It is the little changes that will make the greatest changes.

    Thanks for sharing!

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