Extended producer responsibility may be as many as five to 10 years from becoming a reality in the U.S. — if it even occurs by then.
But manufacturers, retailers and brand owners in the U.S. should look to embrace EPR now, as it can benefit them with more recycled materials and a stronger sustainability footprint because it would improve the nation's current ineffective recycling infrastructure, said Scott Cassel, executive director and founder of the Product Stewardship Institute Inc.
PSI, based in Boston, is a nationwide nonprofit organization whose membership includes 47 state agencies, and more than 200 local government agencies in 27 states.
“EPR gives the industry the opportunity to determine for themselves what is the most cost-effective solution” to managing their products and packaging at the end of their lives, said Cassel at the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers conference in Denver in mid-June. “It also makes sure that everyone involved in the life cycle of the product shares in the responsibility for the product's life-cycle impact.”
EPR also is more likely to bring in more materials than the current collection system.
“The current system for recycling is ineffective, and has been at a standstill for years,” said Cassel, a former state environmental official in New Jersey who has a master's degree in environmental science and more than 25 years of experience in dealing with product and waste management issues.
“It is a fragmented infrastructure based on municipal boundaries, and each area does collection differently.”
In addition, since municipal collection largely focuses on single-family homes, “there is insufficient collection from commercial and industrial sites and insufficient ‘away from home' collection, mostly because of lack of funding,” Cassel said.
“Municipalities are highly dependant on the local tax base and recycling competes in the budget cycle with funding for police and libraries, and it often loses that battle,” Cassel said.
Begun as a solution to landfill problems in Europe, EPR has been gaining momentum in Canada the past five years after first emerging more than 20 years ago in Europe, where more than 30 countries now have some type of EPR packaging law. In the U.S., EPR has been mostly focused on electronic goods, as 27 states now have some type of electronic-waste take-back program.
In most EPR programs, governments set parameters for waste diversion, recycling, or both. But specifics of how to achieve those objectives are determined by the companies that are part of the supply chain for the product and packaging that needs to be recovered at the end of its life.
“EPR does not mandate a specific type of collection infrastructure,” said Cassel, whose association focuses on 17 different product-stewardship categories, including packaging and electronics. “It only assigns the responsibility for implementing and financing a collection and recycling infrastructure” to the companies involved in that product's life cycle.
“EPR programs shift the costs and responsibilities to the marketplace,” Cassel said. “Manufacturers, retailers and consumers all have a stake — with government retaining oversight of the process.”
“EPR also gets all the stakeholders in the system talking,” he said, which can lead to industry driving changes that can result in increased recycling as companies seek to avoid disposal fees.
The major grocery chains in Canada, for example, in May told their suppliers of thermoformed clamshell packaging to switch to PET resins by Jan. 1, and to use labels that don't interfere with the recycling process. (When PET is not viable, the retailers will encourage clamshell manufacturers to use polystyrene.)
The main driving force behind that nationwide Canadian grocers initiative is the EPR regulations in Ontario that make producers responsible for their waste — which the industry manages and funds through the private, not-for-profit group Stewardship Ontario.
Another EPR-driven program in Canada is the one in the province of Manitoba.
In that initiative, the year-old Canadian Beverage Container Recycling Association will spend several million dollars during the next two years — funded by a 2-cent container recycling fee paid by group members — to place thousands of recycling bins in Winnipeg city parks, arenas, recreation centers, public buildings and other high-traffic areas.
“We like the system that is set up there,” said Kim Jeffery, president and CEO of Nestlé Waters North America Inc., which participates in the Manitoba program. “Industry pays 80 percent of the cost and manages the funds.”
Seeking traction in US
Yet very few packaging executives, except for Jeffery, have stood up and advocated the EPR concept in the U.S.
“We have to rethink the recycling challenge,” Jeffery said in a recent interview.
“We need a system that gets back all containers,'” said Jeffery. “If we are really concerned about recycling and doing something good, rather than just looking good, we need to have comprehensive recycling of all containers of value — bottles, containers for health and beauty aids, laundry bottles and foods such as mayonnaise, mustard and ketchup.”
“EPR is what I call a 21st century solution,” said Jeffery. “If we want to collect multiple streams of material and get all reusable packaging back, we have to rethink the recycling challenge [and develop] a system that does that.”
“EPR gives industries the opportunity — through a stewardship organization of manufacturers, brand owners and retailers — to collectively manage a program to meet the performance goals set by government,” said Cassel. “They can do it through an existing infrastructure, something else they set up, or a combination of those two things.”
But, he cautioned: “You need every critical stakeholder involved to design a successful system for collection and recycling of packaging.” That includes waste-management companies, consumer packaged-goods companies, manufacturers, retailers, industry associations, state and local governments, and community groups.
EPR programs also need “strong performance targets that are material-specific for the collection and recycling of each material type,” Cassel said. “The stakeholders have to figure out what the goals are and how to get there.”
In addition, the companies involved — particularly the retailers and brand owners — have to educate consumers and provide them with information on what to recycle and how to do it, he said.
EPR programs also need to make recycling containers and bins easily accessible to consumers.
“The recycling infrastructure needs to be convenient, and people need to be aware of where they can go to recycle the products,” said Cassel.
“You need more investments by material-recovery facilities, more education, access that is convenient for more away-from-home collection and incentives for manufacturers to invest in more collection,” he said.
There are other approaches to increasing the recycling of end-of-life products, he said, including landfill disposal bans and bottle bills. But those programs have limitations and are usually focused on a single type of product, Cassel said.
“EPR programs can include other types of materials beyond bottles and containers,” he said. “EPR sets performance goals, but gives producers much more flexibility in how they can achieve those goals.”
Cassel also said that the time is right for EPR programs for plastics products.
“Commodity restraints are growing and no economy can afford to waste materials,” said Cassel. “We have to have the attitude that we just can't keep going on throwing valuable material away. EPR is one of those things we have to look at in order to increase supply” of recycled materials.
“EPR is not a silver bullet,” said Cassel. “But it can increase supplies of materials because it sends a market signal that more materials will be collected, that there will be more supply, and that it makes sense for the market to make investments.”
That is what happened in both Europe and Canada, where, for the most part, the recycled rates — particularly for plastic products — are 15-30 percentage points higher than in the U.S., Cassel said.
“As EPR increases in the U.S., there is going to be a good likelihood of an increased supply of all materials.”
What's more, if Europe is an indicator, the relative cost to producers to manage that collection system will decrease over time, he said.
What form EPR will eventually take in the U.S. is uncertain. But Cassel believes it would be more beneficial to have statewide programs than municipal programs.
“We need to do things to optimize the system, reduce cost and to increase supply,” said Cassel.
“A statewide program is better because it's harmonized, will reduce more waste, be lower-cost, be more efficient, and trigger investments” by MRFs, recyclers and reclaimers.