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AMBR staff inform Waste Dive about recycling policy gains

The United States has a waste problem that’s difficult to avoid. Plastic-wrapped bananas, toothpaste tubes, single-use containers at every turn. Consumers alone cannot solve this crisis.

Many advocates, including AMBR, propose producer responsibility policies for packaging as a solution. Kate Bailey, the Policy Coordinator for AMBR and Policy and Research Director for Eco-Cycle, updates Waste Dive on expected legislation in Colorado.

From Waste Dive, published on August 29, 2021:

Progress report: State waste and recycling policies gain notable traction this year

State lawmakers have made significant headway on laws about EPR, recycled content mandates and plastic products. Other bills are still in play, and experts anticipate even more changes in 2022.

AMBR cofounder Eureka Recycling’s employee by the bale.

State legislatures concerned about climate change and plastic packaging litter have moved the needle in 2021 to pass bills meant to make lasting changes on local waste and recycling systems. 

Although many states have wrapped up their legislative sessions, this year has already been notable for the way historically difficult-to-pass bills have finally become law, including two extended producer responsibility (EPR) for packaging bills, one major bottle bill update, several plastic bans and two mandates that would require certain amounts of recycled content in packaging sold in their states. Many of these same policies are playing out at the federal level as Congress considers a historic influx of recycling-related bills, but these bills have not progressed at the same pace.

So too have many state recycling and waste bills failed to pass, but 2021 has still been a significant year for the number of climate change-related bills introduced, said Yinka Bode-George, an environmental health manager at the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators. 

“This year we saw a lot of states introduce bills such as EPR bills for the first time,” she said. “For a lot of states, this year was a campaign year or an education year for their respective legislatures, so in subsequent years they can add some meat to their strategy.”

Panelists at June’s WasteExpo in Las Vegas took note of how states are setting the tone on recycling, waste and organics policies that could eventually pave the way to success for federal bills with similar aims. Michelle Leonard, senior vice president at SCS Engineers, said industry professionals and lawmakers seem more plugged in now than at any other time in her 30-year career. “We’re finally connecting the dots in terms of climate change, economic development, and protecting public health and safety,” she said.

It’s just the beginning for state EPR legislation for packaging

2021 has been a breakout year for EPR laws, with Maine becoming the first state to pass one for packaging and  Oregon’s governor poised to soon sign a packaging EPR bill. Packaging EPR has been slower to take off in the U.S. compared to other countries, but state lawmakers decisions to ultimately enact these laws signals growing momentum and changing attitudes around EPR as a method to manage waste. 

Most of the EPR bills introduced this year have failed to move forward in their respective legislatures, but industry leaders expect the groundswell around EPR to continue throughout the year and well into the next legislative season – for better or worse. 

“I see that EPR is going to probably proliferate across the U.S. next year even more than this year,” said Republic Services Vice President of Government & Regulatory Affairs Dan Jameson during a panel discussion at WasteExpo. Jameson said he sees improved packaging design as a better solution to waste than implementing EPR programs, but added that waste companies will need to pay close attention when EPR policies inevitably pop up in states where they operate. 

An EPR for packaging bill in New York made some headway this year, but it ultimately did not pass before the state’s legislative session wrapped up. 

“We’re all of the belief that it’s going to come up again as soon as the new session starts next year,” said Andy Moss, the Northeast division government affairs manager at Waste Connections, during the WasteExpo panel. “We are actively going to start talking to legislators in the summer” to have a more active role in how the bill may be written for the next session, he said.

Susan Robinson, Waste Management’s senior director of sustainability and policy, said waste haulers have resisted EPR policies for years, but her company and others have started to see the advantage of working with legislators on improving proposed bills. One area where EPR policies may need work “is that EPR does a really good job of bringing supply into the system, but it doesn’t really create demand, and that’s a fundamental flaw,” she said. “We really need to address that to grow supply and demand together, otherwise you disrupt the economics of our system.”

Colorado is likely to introduce its own EPR bill next year, said Kate Bailey, policy and research director at Eco-Cycle. The handful of EPR bills introduced across the country have different “flavors” that target a range of consumer packaging and involve different details on how much control producers will have over the systems. Bailey observed that Colorado has taken extensive notes on what other states are doing in order to craft legislation that best fits the needs of the state. 

The state’s Department of Public Health and Environment released a literature review of other EPR programs in July, making recommendations about what a future bill in the state could look like. It called for “a program similar to Maine’s framework approach for producer responsibility,” according to the report, but also stressed the need for Colorado-specific ideas for better recycling access, particularly for the state’s rural areas, as well as funding mechanisms and other facets.

Analysts also expect states to reintroduce more bottle bills next year. Connecticut successfully passed a law updating its low-performing bottle deposit program and doubled its deposit value, making it the most major bottle bill update in years, but longtime struggles between brands and lawmakers will likely continue to slow efforts to update or change bottle bills in other states in the future.