EPR and the China Sword

by Scott Cassel and Kristin Aldred Cheek

In July 2017, China formally announced new import restrictions on recyclables, which came into effect in 2018. U.S. municipalities are now feeling the Sword’s sting. A lack of investment in domestic recycling infrastructure, dependence on other nations to accept contaminated recyclables, and failure to account for the full lifecycle costs of packaging have resulted in significantly increased costs for local governments and taxpayers. China’s policy shift revealed flaws in U.S. recycling systems, which currently rely on voluntary action on the part of packaging producers.

In British Columbia, however, where an extended producer responsibility (EPR) law is in place for packaging and paper products, the effects of the Sword are muted. There is now increasing interest in EPR for packaging in the U.S. – which will only grow as the impacts of China’s policies continue to unfold.

Failure to place responsibility on producers through effective EPR legislation has left many local governments and taxpayers in a difficult bind across the U.S. From Massachusetts to Oregon, municipalities are suspending all or portions of their recycling operations and seeking permission where needed to landfill recyclable items. Twenty-two municipalities in Washington recently granted a waste management company permission to landfill post-consumer paper that had been piling up. In Minnesota, where state law forbids landfilling or burning recyclables, waste managers and regulators are discussing the possibility of a waiver for the first time. In places where recycling contracts are expiring, municipalities suddenly find themselves absorbing enormous costs in their budgets for something that used to generate revenue, or raising residents’ recycling and waste disposal rates.

Meanwhile, BC’s EPR program has transformed the collection and recycling of packaging and paper products into an integrated province-wide system that has achieved one of the lowest contamination rates in North America. Instead of each municipality collecting its own set of recyclables and educating their residents in different ways, BC has developed a cohesive system that spurred investments in local processing capacity, achieving the economies of scale that packaging brand owners need to meet their ambitious recycled content and recyclability goals. Well-functioning European EPR systems – for instance, in Belgium, Spain, and Italy – have achieved similar success.

U.S. municipalities have been doing their best within the limits of their individual jurisdictions, but their efforts are not enough in the face of growing plastics pollution, increasing complexity in packaging, and shrinking export markets for recyclables. Without carefully planned, significant change in product stewardship policies and practices for packaging, U.S. governments, recyclers, and brand owners will not achieve their goals. It is time for U.S. policymakers and businesses to seriously examine how EPR programs can achieve the results they seek. That’s why the Product Stewardship Institute is reconvening packaging EPR strategic calls this fall for our Full Members. If you would like to be involved in our work on packaging EPR, contact Kristin Aldred Cheek at kristin@productstewardship.us, or (617) 236-8293.

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