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The Extended Producer Responsibility Approach to Advancing Recycling

Extended producer responsibility laws are conceived as tools to improve the management of target materials, thereby limiting negative impacts of their use. Rather than prescribe solutions, the laws generally set targets and leave the problem solving to an extended producer organizations (EPRO), an industry group incentivized to minimize the environmental burden of waste materials, but also given authority to determine the best way to do so.

Producers who prove they meet certain targets for sustainability, such as recycling rates, can sometimes be exempted from membership. Fees collected by an EPRO from its members are used to fund waste management, recycling programs, and educational outreach.

The strategy has gained some acceptance as an approach to improving the management of waste plastics and in particular as a way to address challenges facing the plastic recycling industry. Despite more than doubling from 2000-2018, the amount of plastic recycled in the U.S. remains relatively low compared to overall production.

National Harbor, MD

Gaylord Convention Center in National Harbor, MD. Extended Producer Responsibility Organizations were a frequent topic of conversation at the Plastics Recycling Conference held there in March 2023.
Photo Credit: Matt Stonecash

Opportunities for Extended Producer Responsibility Organizations to Support and Enhance the Recycling System

  1. Consumer Behavior –A MRF manager recently related the story of going out to the landfill each day and watching helplessly as high value materials like PET bottles are dumped, simply because the user had neglected to put them in the bin. Education—partly disseminating knowledge but also building familiarity and trust—could help reduce the amount of material that never reaches the recycling system at all. 
  2. Recycling Program Standardization– Almost 32% of U.S. households must drive their recycling to a drop off point and another 8.6% have no access to any recycling program.  So, for tens of millions the recycling rate is zero because the opportunity is absent. Within the thousands of municipalities that do provide curbside collection, accepted resin codes and formats vary widely. EPROs can support recycling program expansion and standardization.
  3. Price Stability -Recyclers cannot respond to price changes as nimbly as other producers, in part because the supply of waste material is inelastic. A combination of price fluctuations, capital investments and long term supplier/customer relationships is endemic. Although encouraged by enthusiasm for recycled content and ambitious goals of brand owners, recyclers are cautious in their optimism about future demand, especially concerning materials other than food grade PET and natural HDPE. EPROs can pursue stabilization of demand, and improve supply availability via points 1,2, and 4.
  4. Supply Consistency and Quality– In municipal recycling programs, many of those doing the hard work of sorting single streams of post-consumer waste are doing so with decades-old technology. New robotics are available that sort rapidly and can be linked with feedback systems that provide real time information on exactly how well they are performing. EPROs can help MRFs obtain contemporary technology, thereby enhancing the value of material extracted for each member of the value chain.

Established and Future EPR Programs for Plastic Packaging

Effective EPR programs have been established in the European Union, Japan, and South Korea for decades. More recent laws passed in parts of Canada and Australia, as well as a handful of U.S. states, have established EPR programs. Similar legislation has also been introduced in Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Vermont, and Washington.

The legislative future of these measures is uncertain, but with EPR already adopted by California, and other important markets for packaged goods, various manifestations of the concept are likely to play a growing role in the future management of plastic packaging material lifecycles. 


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