This Is Plastics: The New Circular Economy IV: EPR policies must be well thought out to be successful


The New Circular Economy IV: EPR policies must be well thought out to be successful

Effective recycling legislation requires collaboration to promote actionable goals that support, not supplant, state and local programs.


Effective, tailored community plastic collection and recycling programs are critical to ensuring that essential plastic products remain in the circular economy and out of the environment. While the U.S. recycling system is a patchwork of state and local policies, several states are beginning to look to extended producer responsibility (EPR) as a solution to ensure more post-consumer materials are recovered and properly recycled. By employing incentives for companies, EPR policies shift the responsibility of post-consumer material end-of-life processes from consumers to producers to ensure that all products are collected and recycled. While some states, including Oregon, Maine and Washington, have passed EPR policies and others are looking to do the same, the federal government has increasingly become interested in creating this type of program at the national level.

Coordination between government and industry is critical to avoid pitfalls at the state-level

To be effective, complex EPR programs must include input from the plastics industry—specifically those most impacted by the proposed policy—to ensure goals are achievable and outcomes are successful. Unfortunately, a few recent EPR policies have failed to consider such stakeholder input with negative results. For example, a recently passed Oregon EPR law requires producers to pay for improvements designated by a panel without any representatives from the plastics industry. While this policy is well-intentioned, by excluding insights from the plastics industry, it is not inclusive of existing industry investments and efforts to improve recycling. New and innovative technologies developed by plastic producers are already improving Oregon’s plastic collection and recycling and increasing overall product circularity—yet this new law overlooks the opportunities already being created.

Without collaboration, EPR policies can have unintended negative impacts or fail to make a dent in waste management. These include an increase in bureaucracy, significant spending on initiatives that hurt material circularity and the creation of roadblocks to reaching set goals. EPR legislation, such as Maine’s 2021 law, requires producers to pay extra fees to recycle their products and packaging, thereby increasing the cost of choosing recyclable materials. The goal of EPR is not to impose fees on producers, and policy models focused more on punitive measures that drive up prices tend to have unintended consequences for consumers—all while failing to reduce waste and raise recycling rates.  

Federal EPR policy could undermine local efforts, setting unrealistic goals

As states continue to adopt EPR policies, programs could begin to catch on at the federal level. However, federally mandating this type of program could create conflicts with ongoing state and local recycling efforts across the country while restricting competition at the expense of small businesses. Right now, local businesses with small margins have opportunities to collaborate with state and local lawmakers to develop tailored programs that fit their business needs and the region’s existing infrastructure. A federal “one-size-fits-all” model would undermine these ongoing efforts. Furthermore, mandated changes at the federal level would be challenging to implement when considering the extreme variety of geographies, topographies and urban-rural localities in the United States. Thus far, federal action has funded and otherwise supported state-level policymakers without creating a separate, national recycling program, and changing that system could undermine local programs.  

A federal EPR policy could also require recycling infrastructure that does not yet exist, putting additional strain on localities and companies. For example, a new EPR law in Washington state requires that 90% of packaging materials be reused or recycled. Yet, the bill ignores the root of the problem: insufficient recycling infrastructure, would need to be addressed for this goal to become a reality. Even worse, the law does not allocate significant funding to improve state waste management. Setting a 90% recycled content requirement also creates an unrealistic standard for product producers. Rather than implementing policies with near-unachievable goals and punitive measures for industry, legislation at the federal level should focus on improving infrastructure, including curbside recycling, and investing in the best circular solutions for unique communities that will increase the supply of recycled plastics.

Government focus on improving recycling infrastructure is a positive trend

While implementing a nationwide EPR program would welcome unique challenges, this is not the only possible solution to effectively reduce plastic waste. Policymakers are increasingly finding new methods of collaboration with the plastics industry to build a more robust and effective circular economy. In November 2021, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act (BIA) was signed into law and allocated $375 million to fund U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recycling, reuse and waste prevention grant programs and initiatives. The BIA enabled EPA’s largest recycling investment in 30 years, intended to fortify state and local recycling, reuse and waste prevention programs and builds on the agency’s November 2021 National Recycling Strategy that recognizes the need to reinforce recycling and waste management infrastructure to solve the issue of plastic waste.

These very encouraging solution-oriented investments are critical elements of the new circular economy. Similarly, EPR policies that focus on mechanisms to increase funding for traditional and innovative recycling systems are vital to reducing plastic waste without placing an undue burden on producers, consumers and municipalities.

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