Recycling reduces the amount of materials entering landfills, but the unfortunate reality is that not everything can be recycled or it is not economical to do so. This is a large problem with packaging, shipping materials, and consumer goods. These products are manufactured with non-recyclable materials or in a way that the recyclable material cannot be separated, rendering them non-recyclable. A main cause of this issue is that producers have no financial incentive to consider the final disposal of their products, including recyclability. States have recently begun addressing this issue with Extended Producer Responsibility programs.
Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) programs shift the responsibility of a product’s end of life to the producer. EPR makes the producers financially responsible for the ultimate disposal of their products, encouraging material minimization and increased recyclability in product design. These programs can make sure producers and users of products pay for the complete life cycle the product, rather than externalizing the costs to the government, tax payers, and environment. EPR helps to shift the cost burden off of taxpayers and on to those responsible for waste generation—this is known as the “polluter pays” principle. This policy also incentivizes producers to redesign their products to be more readily recyclable and reduce unnecessary packaging and materials.
One form of ERP is recycling incentive programs. These programs have a history of success in the United States. A great example is incentivizing bottle returns, like in New York, Michigan and other states. This is another “polluter pays” principle, as a deposit is made for each plastic/glass bottle or aluminum can. The deposit is returned to the consumer once the bottle is brought back to the distributer for recycling. The deposits of bottles that are never returned fund environmental services. Deposits are typically 5¢ to 10¢, but unclaimed deposits can add up to millions of dollars. While bottles and cans are typically accepted by most recycling centers, the material collected from deposit returns is considered higher quality and is easier to recycle. Greater than 80% of glass and plastics from deposit returns are recycled, whereas only 40% of glass and 70% of plastic from single-stream collections are recycled. This is only considering materials that make it to the recycling bin—beverage waste makes up 40% to 60% of all litter, polluting waterways and wilderness. Bottle returns discourage littering, reducing pollution from beverage waste. Currently, bottle return programs are successfully implemented in 10 states.
There are other forms of EPR programs in several states. For example, California has EPR programs for paint, carpet, mattresses, pharmaceuticals and sharps, mercury thermostats, and pesticide containers. Maine has EPR programs for electronic waste, paint, and mercury-containing products. As of July 2021, Maine is the first state to enact an EPR policy for consumer packaging. Many other states are working to enact packaging EPRs with active bills in California, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, and Washington. Bills are expected to be proposed in Colorado, New Hampshire, and Vermont. There is currently an active packaging EPR bill in Pennsylvania— House Bill 1873.
Germany’s Green Dot program (GDP) is a well-studied and successful example of a packaging EPR program. Germany enacted an EPR for three types of packaging—transport, secondary, and primary. Transport refers to packaging used in the shipment of goods; crates, pallets, or corrugated containers. Secondary refers to packaging that is used for advertisement or marketing of the product, such as outer boxes, foil wrapping, or blister packs. Primary refers to the package that contains the product, such as a can, plastic bag, or jar. The GDP required manufacturers and distributors to take back transport packaging, retailers to install drop-off bins for secondary and primary packaging, and for deposits to be placed on non-refillable primary packaging. In one year, Germany saved 7.5 billion kilowatt-hours of energy with this program. The GDP also saved 1.8 million tons of materials from entering the waste stream, and 1.1 million tons of carbon pollution in just one year. The program was fully enacted in 1993 and has been reducing energy, waste, and carbon emissions for almost 30 years.
EPR programs can transform packaging waste from a taxpayer burden into a resource for future production. More information about PA House Bill 1873, an EPR bill in the PA House, can be found at the Pennsylvania General Assembly website.