NASHVILLE, TENN. — EPR: three little letters that could have some big implications for the plastics industry.
Extended producer responsibility is the concept that manufacturers should be responsible for their goods all the way through the life cycle, footing the bill for disposal or recycling at the very end.
And, according to the experts, it's coming.
"Sometime in my lifetime, it's going to happen," said Laurie Hansen Sheets, executive director of the Western Plastics Association, based in Sacramento, Calif. "It's probably not going to be this year and it's probably not going to be next year, but I believe … this issue is not going to go [away] and it's probably going to hit us."
Hansen Sheets was one of three speakers on a sustainability panel at the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.'s Flexible Film and Bag Conference, held May 8-10 in Nashville.
She cited proposed legislation in California that might not use the term EPR outright, but will have the same effect on the industry.
Senate Bill 529, the Plastic and Marine Pollution Reduction, Recycling, and Composting Act, was introduced in California earlier this year. The bill would prohibit fast-food restaurant chains, after July 1, 2014, from giving out disposable food-service packaging or single-use carryout bags that aren't recyclable or compostable.
The bill sets a high threshold to claim that packaging is recyclable or compostable, she said.
At least 60 percent of the people living in the area of the restaurant must have access to curbside recycling or composting for that type of packaging. An earlier version of the bill also asked restaurants to accept the packaging back for composting or recycling.
Those requirements may be unattainable in some places. Los Angeles County, for example, will never have curbside composting because of the area's strict air pollution thresholds, according to Hansen Sheets.
And while the polystyrene industry has been working overtime to increase the rate of curbside PS recycling, and has been successful, it's not at 60 percent yet, she said.
Additionally, by July 1, 2016, packaging must be recycled or composted at a 25 percent rate statewide. That bumps up to 50 percent by 2018 and 75 percent by 2020.
"It's definitely EPR because it's going to try to force the manufacturer, and the users, to do something about this, to try to get recycling or composting more extended in the state," she said.
Assembly Bill 521 would require "EPR for everybody in the plastics industry, done under the banner of plastic marine debris," Hansen Sheets said.
AB 521 aims to reduce plastic marine pollution from land-based sources by 75 percent by 2020 and 95 percent by 2025.
"They're being very clever, of course, because they're tying it to something that's close to Californians' hearts, and that's our coastline and our oceans," she said.
The bill would require state agencies to come up with a list of the major sources of marine plastic pollution.
Producers of those products would be required to submit a proposal within six months outlining how they plan to prevent their products from entering the pollution stream. Producers that don't want to submit a plan would be allowed to pay an alternative compliance fee. Producers in violation of the law could pay fines between $1,000 and $10,000 per violation per day.
It's a "pretty significant bill," Hansen Sheets said. "We haven't seen [legislation] like this, as far as I know, across the U.S., specifically pointed at plastics."
Both bills have been held in committee without a vote since late May, essentially killing them for this session. She noted that California has a full-time legislature in session until September. In addition, bills are active for two years and can be completely amended up to the last minute; dead bills aren't really dead, they just become two-year bills, Hansen Sheets said.
The industry needs people in California watching what goes on, she said.
What happens in California doesn't stay in California, she said.
"The bottom line, in my opinion, is that all industry groups have to stick together. We have to work together. We have to support the efforts that all of us are making," she said. "Environmentalists love non-cohesive groups because they can pick us apart one at a time, so we need to stick together. We need to support each other.
"All of us in this room, we have to get active, we have to get engaged," she said.
California might have a penchant for environmental legislation, but EPR isn't limited to the West Coast.
Cash-strapped local governments are pushing for manufacturers to foot the bill for recycling or disposal, said Dave Heglas, material resources director for Winchester, Va.-based Trex Co. Inc., in a presentation on the American Chemistry Council's Film Recycling Group.
Some companies, like Nestlé Waters North America Inc., have also been advocating for EPR programs, Heglas said. Nestlé has spent the last few years promoting EPR and working with organizations to find ways to boost recycling rates and have more recycled resin to make products with.
The company promotes its case for EPR on its website and in a report available on the website of nonprofit advocacy group As You Sow.
EPR is a big worry, but it's not the only thing troubling the industry in California.
The state water board has been meeting for more than a year to implement a statewide trash policy, Hansen Sheets said.
The board is following a mandate in the federal Clean Water Act that requires states with waterways impacted by trash to come up with a plan to reduce pollution and establish a total maximum daily load, or TMDL, for that waterway.
Communities can earn credits toward meeting their TMDL requirements through banning plastic products like bags or EPS containers. It's an option that might appeal to local governments that don't want to spend a lot of money to meet requirements, Hansen Sheets said.
The water board established a stakeholder group to help develop the plan, but originally the only industry representative was one member from ACC.
A number of people in the industry tried to join the group, but the water board "had a mindset going in and they stuck with that mindset and would not let others participate," she said.
The water board is now having wider stakeholder group meetings, including one in June, to get the industry's reaction, Hansen Sheets said.