Maine, Oregon want manufacturers to foot the bill to get rid of packaging waste
Most consumers do not pay much attention to the packaging of their purchases, unless it is difficult to open or the item is really too packed. But packaging makes up about 28% of municipal solid waste in the United States. Only about 53% 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 United States are discarded and incinerated or sent to landfills.
Local governments across the United States manage waste management, funding it through taxes and user fees. Until 2018, the United States exported huge amounts of recyclable materials, mainly to China. China then banned most imports of foreign scrap metal. Other recipient countries like Vietnam have followed suit, triggering waste disposal crises in rich countries.
Some states in the United States have laws that make manufacturers responsible for products that are particularly difficult to manage, such as electronic waste, car batteries, mattresses, and tires, when those products reach the end of their useful life.
Today, Maine and Oregon enacted the state’s first laws making companies that create consumer packaging, such as cardboard, plastic packaging, and food containers, also responsible for recycling and l disposal of these products. Maine law comes into effect in mid-2024 and Oregon law in mid-2025.
These measures shift the costs of waste management from customers and local municipalities to producers. As researchers who study waste and how to reduce it, we are excited to see states move to engage stakeholders, transfer responsibilities, spur innovation, and challenge existing extractive practices.
Hold producers accountable
The laws of Maine and Oregon are the latest applications of a concept called Extended Producer Responsibility, or EPR. Swedish scholar Thomas Lindhqvist formulated this idea in 1990 as a strategy to reduce the environmental impacts of products by making manufacturers accountable for the entire life cycle of products, especially for take-back, recycling and disposal. final elimination.
Producers do not always literally take back their goods under EPR arrangements. Instead, they often make payments to an intermediary organization or agency, which uses the money to help cover the costs of recycling and disposing of the product. Getting producers to cover these costs is intended to encourage them to redesign their products to reduce waste.
The idea of extended producer responsibility has led to regulations governing the management of electronic waste, such as old computers, televisions and cellphones, in the European Union, China and in 25 US states. Similar measures have been adopted or proposed in countries such as Kenya, Nigeria, Chile, Argentina and South Africa.
Bans on the export of scrap metal in China and other countries have given new energy to the EPR campaigns. Activist organizations and even some businesses are now calling on producers to take responsibility for more types of waste, including consumer packaging.
What state laws require
Maine and Oregon laws define consumer packaging as materials that may end up in the average resident’s trash, such as containers for food and personal or household care products. Excluded are packaging intended for long-term storage (more than five years), beverage containers, paint cans and packaging for drugs and medical devices.
Maine law incorporates some fundamental EPR principles, such as setting a target recycling goal and encouraging producers to use more sustainable packaging. Oregon law includes more innovative elements. It promotes the idea of a right to repair, which gives consumers access to the information they need to repair the products they buy. And he’s creating a “Truth in Labeling” task force to assess whether producers make misleading claims about the recyclability of their products.
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 the types of materials that can be recycled in the state. Studies show that contamination from improper sorting is one of the main reasons recyclable materials are often rejected.
Some extended producer responsibility systems, such as those for paint and mattresses, are funded by consumers, who pay additional point-of-sale fees that are detailed on their receipt. The costs cover the recycling or possible elimination of the products.
In contrast, laws in Maine and Oregon require producers to pay a fee to states, based on the amount of packaging material they sell in those states. Both laws also include rules designed to limit the influence of producers on how states use these funds.
Will these laws reduce waste?
There is not yet a clear consensus on the effectiveness of EPR. In some cases, this has produced results: For example, Connecticut’s mattress recycling rate fell from 8.7% to 63.5% after the state instituted a fee-paid recovery law. point of sale. Nationally, the Product Stewardship Institute estimates that since 2007, U.S. EPR paint programs have reused and recycled nearly 24 million gallons of paint, created 200 jobs, and saved governments and businesses over $ 240 million. taxpayers.
Critics argue that these programs need strict regulation and oversight to ensure that companies take their responsibilities seriously – and most importantly to prevent them from passing costs on to consumers, which requires regulatory action. enforceable liability. Observers also argue that producers may have too much influence in stewardship organizations, which they believe could 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 do exist do not conclusively show 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 the Berkeley Ecological Center and internationally renowned plastics and recycling expert, told us, “Maine’s approach of making brands and manufacturers pay cities for services. recycling is an improvement over programs that give all control to producers, where the fox is directly responsible for the hen house.
We believe the laws in Maine and Oregon could inspire jurisdictions like California that are considering similar measures or are drowning in plastic waste to adopt the RPE themselves. Waste reduction efforts in the United States have been hit by foreign disposal bans and then by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has spurred greater use of disposable products and packaging. We see producer compensation plans like the laws of Maine and Oregon as a promising response that could help catalyze broader progress towards 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 policy, University of California, Berkeley
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.