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EPR Policy: Risk or Opportunity for Recyclers?

Extended Producer Responsibility for packaging policies can increase and improve recycling, yet the recycling industry has been hesitant to embrace it. To address recyclers’ concerns and design a robust, successful Producer Responsibility policy for packaging, recyclers must be included from the start in policy design. 

Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) policies for containers, packaging, and printed paper are beginning to take hold in the US. With proven success in increasing recycling rates and recycling quality in Europe and Canada, there are now more than 40 countries and provinces with mandatory EPR policies for containers and packaging. Four US states — California, Colorado, Maine, and Oregon — have adopted policies in the past two years.

Well-designed EPR policies could drive improvements in recycling.
These policies have the potential to create greater convenience and access to recycling programs, increase recycling rates and reduce climate pollution, drive more environmentally sustainable products and packaging, and reduce costs to local governments. 

Despite the proven benefits of EPR in increasing recycling rates in other countries, there are mixed responses to EPR policies proposed in the US among recycling operators and waste haulers. For example, the National Waste and Recycling Association (NWRA), as well as some of the largest recycling haulers in the US,  have opposed policies across the country. While they have remained opposed in many states, they are increasingly engaging in the stakeholder and implementation processes in multiple states. 

As haulers and Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) operators, AMBR members fully recognize and share many concerns about the risks of poorly-designed EPR policies negatively impacting recycling and that any EPR implementation will require near-term adjustment for recyclers. 

Some of these concerns include:

  • Consumer brands entering the recycling space without expertise or experience and undermining or eliminating years of expertise, investment, and local community programs;
  • Unaccountable industry-run organizations that unilaterally set the rules and pricing for recycling, eliminating open markets and resulting in flow and price control by consumer brands; and
  • Greenwashing of recycling programs to fit the marketing needs and desires of consumer brands rather than community and environmental benefit.

These concerns can be addressed, and strong and accountable EPR policies for packaging and paper could expand and improve recycling in the US. These programs must supplement the existing recycling industry while driving the development of a more equitable, financially sustainable, regenerative, resilient, non-toxic, circular economy. These goals will be more achievable with the voice of recyclers—who know the industry best—at the table.

What is EPR for printed paper and packaging?

Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) policies require product manufacturers to be financially responsible for the end-of-use of their products and packaging by sharing the costs of recycling or proper disposal. This shifts the burden off of local governments and households covering all of these direct costs, while communities and the environment absorb the externalized health and climate costs of toxic and wasteful packaging and products. While EPR policies vary by region, the common goals are to provide a strong incentive to companies to redesign and reduce packaging and generate a dedicated stable financial source to improve collection, sorting, and recycling infrastructure.

The Role of a Producer Responsibility Organization (PRO) in EPR 

EPR laws typically require the formation of a Producer Responsibility Organization to manage the program, including drafting and implementing the program plan, setting and collecting fees, funding the program and consumer education through fees collected, and ensuring target goals are met. The structure of the PRO may vary according to a state’s capacity and expertise for oversight — for example, some states may opt for government agencies to manage program implementation while others may assign this responsibility to the manufacturers and producers. While having brands manage and implement the program can create more buy-in for participation in the program, there should always be effective mechanisms for public input (e.g., through an advisory board), and strong state oversight is essential to ensuring goals and metrics are met. All PROs should be required to incorporate stakeholder feedback from Advisory Boards and the public, and the state government should ultimately have strong oversight of any Producer Responsibility program.

Addressing Recycling Industry Concerns With Strategic EPR Design

By addressing the needs and concerns of recyclers, states will design stronger, more effective EPR policies and build more support within the recycling industry. As recycling operators, AMBR members have been advocating for EPR in their respective states, recommending the following essential tenets of good EPR policy:

1. Engage recyclers in discussions from the start. It is essential to engage the recycling industry in EPR for packaging and printed paper discussions from the onset as a critical stakeholder. Policy development needs to be grounded in the realities of operations. The local governments and private companies currently operating recycling programs offer a tremendous wealth of information about the challenges and opportunities specific to the region. Recyclers should play a key role in advising the implementation and expansion of EPR policy.  

2. Build on existing infrastructure and providers. Private waste and recycling companies, local governments, and state governments have made substantial investments in our current recycling infrastructure, including recycling trucks, curbside carts, drop-off center facilities and equipment, processing equipment at MRFs, and other capital expenses. In addition, government and private companies have trained and employed thousands of workers to operate and manage these systems. These government-run programs, as well as services provided by private companies and existing equipment should be the backbone of the future recycling system, and EPR programs should build on these assets.

Additionally, local control should be supported by allowing existing contract relationships to be locally determined. Where cities have existing franchise agreements with local or national recycling companies, or run their own collection programs, PR policy must build on, pay for, or supplement these programs. Where there is an open market allowing multiple haulers to provide services for recycling, PR policy must allow the local jurisdiction to set its own rules of engagement, such as requiring hauler licensing and reporting, volume-based pricing or bundled services. Where no recycling program exists, PR should fund the local jurisdiction to engage the marketplace for new services. 

3. Establish clear roles and oversight of PROs. Industry-run Producer Responsibility Organizations (PROs) should be limited to development of the plan, monitoring the producers covered by the policy, collecting fees, and paying local governments. Programs must be designed with high accountability of PROs through strong public oversight such as multi-stakeholder oversight commissions, and with a high level of state enforcement to ensure transparency, accountability, compliance and clearly defined goals.

4. Permit time for recyclers to adapt to new regulations. Recycling contracts for hauling, processing, and marketing materials are commonly set for five years and may even last 10 to 15 years. This means it will take time to amend these contracts to the new EPR regulations. In addition, these contracts commonly include trash collection and/or composting collection, which are not covered by EPR regulations, so additional work must be done to adjust just the recycling components. Contract concerns must be addressed in the EPR program plan and implementation timeline. 

5. Set minimum post-consumer recycled content (PCR) standards. Minimum recycled content standards can help strengthen the demand and reduce price volatility for recycled feedstocks. Creating a stronger demand for recyclable materials to match the increased supply created by the EPR program improves the economics of recycling. Minimum recycled content policies should set separate goals by material types (e.g., paper, glass, plastics) and define a mechanism to increase these rates over time. These standards can be part of an EPR legislation or a companion policy. 

6. Include a strong definition of recycling and recyclable within the policy.  For EPR policy to achieve its aim of increasing recycling rates, the legislation needs strong definitions for “recycling” and “recyclable.” For something to be recyclable, it must be readily collected, sorted, processed, and converted to raw material with minimal loss of quality. The raw material should replace virgin materials when creating a new product. Additionally, there must be consistent regional end markets available to purchase the materials. Recycling does not include landfilling, ‘beneficial uses,’ or energy recovery/energy generation, including combustion, incineration, gasification, pyrolysis, solvolysis, waste-to-fuel, or any technology that does not demonstrate an improvement over mechanical recycling in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, toxics emissions, and material quality and recovery. 

7. Strategies must drive a reduction in wasteful packaging and paper. As mission-based recyclers, we see the potential of EPR programs for reducing unnecessary and problematic packaging. Reduction and reuse goals should be incorporated into EPR policy with explicit rates and dates. Eco-modulation of fees based on the cost and impacts of various packaging types must be used to incentivize innovation and design improvements that reduce packaging and contamination of recycling programs.