EPR laws make manufacturers bear some of the responsibility for the afterlife of their products, either through a fee or regulation or both. They’ve been tried for electronics, mattresses and paint. But now the laws are being repurposed to tackle packaging waste.
Last summer, Maine and Oregon passed laws that require producers to join or finance stewardship organizations that will facilitate the recycling of their products. Maine exempts low-volume producers; Oregon will charge annual fees based on the environmental impacts of a company’s products. Both states’ laws are meant to encourage a reduction in packaging. Massachusetts and Colorado have similar bills grinding their way through the legislative process.
Politicians have pitched EPR as both a way to save on collection and recycling and a tool to reduce plastic creation in the first place. New York Governor Kathy Hochul introduced such a proposal in her 2023 budget, saying it would incentivize producers “to reduce waste … make products that are easier to recycle, and support a circular economy.”
But most plastic experts are skeptical. “European countries have had EPR schemes for many years. I haven’t seen any evidence that they’ve meaningfully changed the amount of packaging used, or recycled,” says Julia Attwood, head of sustainable materials at BloombergNEF, a clean energy research group. “They’re just an attempt to recoup some money from packaging producers for the municipalities that badly need it to pay [Materials Recovery Facilities] and recyclers.”
Judith Enck, president of the nonprofit Beyond Plastics, agrees. She argues that EPR bills being proposed in states are actually worse than no legislation at all because they give the impression of action while achieving nothing. For starters, she says, the fees imposed by many bills are far too small to make a difference to producers, who just pass the cost along, and are too removed from the end stage of the life cycle to be an incentive to recycle.
The second problem, Enck says, is too much industry involvement. Many of the bills surfacing now are being written with input from the American Chemistry Council, a plastic industry lobbying group that is trying to head off meaningful restrictions at the pass: “Putting the ACC in charge of packing programs is like putting the fossil fuel industry in charge of reducing GHG emissions,” says Enck.
The New York proposal—which has since been eliminated from the state budget—set no requirements to reduce packaging waste but called for an advisory council, including members of the plastic industry, that would have recommended minimum rates for recovery, recycling and the amount of recycled content in new products.
Instead of that, Enck and other advocates would like to see laws that require reductions in the amount of packaging produced and “laddered” increases in the share of recycled and recyclable content in manufactured goods.
“We’ve talked to people in Europe and their biggest regret is not requiring a reduction in packaging,” Enck says. Advocates are determined not to repeat that mistake in the U.S.