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Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

Who is Responsible for Recycling?

(EPR graphic: advancedwastesolutions.ca)

Roger Lohr

Who is responsible for recycling to reduce plastic, cardboard and paper packaging waste – those who use products or those who produce products? Recent articles in the New York Times and Associated Press informed about the Natural Resources Council of Maine program to address the volatile commodities recycling market that would charge product producers a fee based on factors such as product packaging tonnage. Funds would be paid into a state-run, non-profit producer responsibility organization. These funds would be used to reimburse municipal governments for their recycling operations. In July 2021, The Maine governor signed into law the Extended Producer Responsibility for Packaging legislation to initiate a program in Maine. Similar programs have been developed in Europe, Japan, South Korea and five Canadian provinces. In the U.S. similar legislated programs are pending with Oregon and six other states, while four additional states have expressed interest to join the movement.

According to the Product Stewardship Institute, a growing movement in the U.S. seeks to ensure that those who design, manufacture, sell, and use consumer products take responsibility for reducing negative impacts to the economy, environment, public health, and worker safety. These impacts can occur throughout the lifecycle of a product and its packaging, and are associated with energy and materials consumption; waste generation; toxic substances; greenhouse gases; and other air and water emissions. In a product stewardship approach, manufacturers that design products and specify packaging have the greatest ability, and therefore greatest responsibility, to reduce these impacts by attempting to incorporate the full lifecycle costs into the cost of doing business.

Recycling closed sign Gail Thompson

The concept of the extended product responsibility (EPR) program is to cover municipal recycling operation costs and to provide an incentive for companies to reconsider the design materials used in packaging. There would be higher fees for hard to recycle packaging. Companies can lower their payments by implementing their own independent recycling programs or simply by reducing packaging. There are currently 33 states with some form of EPR law, but most are very narrow (limited to for example, mattresses or paint). The New York Times article stated that since 2008 the state of Connecticut has diverted 26 million pounds of waste, and consumer price increases related to recycling were found to be $0.0056 per pound in an Oregon study.

In Ireland, paper and plastic recycling rates have increased from 19% in the year 2000 to 65% in 2017 and many European Union countries have attained 60 to80% rates. According to the Product Stewardship Institute, the U.S. has had a 32% decline in the recycling rate which was affected by the 2017 Chinese decision to stop importing other nations’ plastic recyclables.

By the way, plastics consume about 20% of all the oil that is produced. While these facts are important, an example of the relevance of these recycling issues is that in Oregon 44 cities and 12 counties have stopped collecting plastics to be recycled. The Maine program is expected to cover about 40% of the waste stream in Maine. It is also expected that the law will help to make recycling programs across the state more uniform.

The packaging and retail industry organizations are opposed to EPR programs on various grounds. These organizations favor incentives to create new markets for recycling materials. Their view is that there is too much government authority and that if such a program is to be instituted that it would be better managed by the industry. Support has been pledged for these EPR programs among many organizations in the product stewardship community and even some companies such as Coke, Walmart, and Unilever. It remains to be seen if some product companies will opt to pull out of states where there are EPR programs or pass on the costs to consumers.

Roger Lohr of Lebanon, NH, who owns and edits XCSkiResorts.com, has published articles and promotional topics on snow sports, sustainability, and trails in regional and national media. He is also the Recreational Editor for Green Energy Times

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