Sonoma, Calif. — Differing opinions about approaches to recycling took a spotlight at the Western Plastics Association's annual conference May 18 in Sonoma, focusing on the roles of product makers and consumers.
Daniel Lantz identified extended producer responsibility (EPR) as a tool to shift accountability for a material's end-of-life to producers, rather than municipal collections. Lantz is CEO of consulting group Scout Environmental Inc. of Toronto.
Susan Robinson, meanwhile, maintained that sustainable materials management (SMM) from community recycling collections keeps the focus on waste reduction and recycling quality. Robinson is senior public affairs director in Washington for Waste Management Inc.
"EPR can help achieve recycling goals," Lantz said. "Recyclability of packaging impacts [consumers'] buying decision making."
Lantz said many multi-national firms include zero waste and recyclability in their social responsibility plans. EPR helps companies achieve recycling goals and recycled content goals for packaging and show corporate responsibility to consumers.
"Municipal management provides no control," he said.
Lantz said EPR can and does help increase diversion, and cited Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Austria as diverting more than two-thirds of packaging waste from their combined residential, industrial, commercial and institutional streams.
"EPR is not the solution, but it is part of the solution with the circular economy and sustainable materials management," he said.
Lantz characterized the circular economy as a way to "keep the loop going as long as possible" and SMM as a way to "add in regulations and safety/security" considerations.
Previously, Lantz ran British Columbia's EPR program with all plastics being recycled through one provincial location and the output feeding an adjacent manufacturing facility.
Waste Management's Robinson, meanwhile, said EPR is "not a good fit in the U.S." Municipal sustainable management "keeps the focus on waste reduction and recycling quality, prioritizes programs for best overall environmental results [and] continues to work along the entire value chain to coordinate programs and messages."
In contrast, "EPR focuses solely on end of life," she said. "EPR alone does not guarantee increased recycling."
Robinson said the U.S. can't afford to ignore existing recycling infrastructure investments and program development efforts.
"The U.S. values competition and local engagement [and] recycling succeeds when these values are employed," she said. "EPR policies run counter to both."
Further, state and local policies that support recycling as a community value or social norm create the individual behaviors necessary for effective recycling results. "EPR does not create these values," Robinson said.
She suggested use of lifestyle thinking to create goals and programs prioritizing environmental benefits.
A holistic approach should encourage packaging innovation, address the challenge of food waste and focus on best practices for existing programs. "It's time to change our goals from weight-based 'diversion goals' to lifecycle environmental-outcome-based goals," Robinson said.