INSIGHT: US plastics industry weighs extended producer responsibility

01 May 2012 16:44  [Source: ICIS news]

By Michelle Klump

HOUSTON (ICIS)--As discussions about extended producer responsibility (EPR) continue to gain steam among players in the US plastics market, industry leaders are still trying to decide whether EPR represents a threat or an opportunity.

Broadly defined, EPR calls for manufacturers to take physical and financial responsibility for collecting and recycling post-consumer waste, shifting the burden from the public sector back upstream to the brand owner.

The concept is widespread throughout Europe - more than 30 countries have EPR laws on the books. But for many in the US, it is still unchartered territory.   

Of the EPR laws that do exist in the US, most deal with the collection of used electronics, or items containing mercury. Recently, some programmes have been broadened to include pesticide containers and even paints.

But the idea of expanding into the realm of food and household packaging is just starting to take root, said Matt Prindiville, associate director of the Athens, Georgia-based Product Policy Institute.

The movement has been spurred, in part, by companies such as Nestle Waters, who are pushing for a system to better recapture their packaging after customers are done with it.

For their part, Nestle Waters helped fund the creation of a non-profit organisation, Recycling Reinvented, whose stated goal is to introduce EPR legislation in four to six states in 2014.

"This is an issue whose time has come," said Michael Washburn, director of sustainability for Nestle Waters North America. "What we are saying is, 'Wake up. We have seen this movie before. We are going to be regulated, but we still have a moment where we could create the system, we could own the system, we could help set up the ground rules.'"

For companies like Nestle Waters, the interest in EPR is about more than improving recycling rates and increasing sustainability. It is also about improving companies' access to recycled plastics, said Paul Gardner, executive director of Recycling Reinvented.

As more and more recycled content (recyclate) is exported to Asia and other countries where there is great demand for it, the cost for recyclate has increased, leaving some companies scrambling to find enough material.

"It is now to the point where domestic manufacturers are saying that prices are high and getting access to supply is getting harder and harder," Gardner said.

By taking control of the waste stream through EPR laws, companies would be able to collect more material in a more efficient and cost-effective way, he said. And with required participation by all members of the industry, there would be no "free-loaders" who would benefit without sharing the costs, Gardner said.

While much of the momentum is centered around polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and the beverage bottle industry, those driving the debate would like to see participation expanded to all packaging materials, including polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), and polystyrene (PS).

A broader participation would not only increase volumes, but would also spread the costs across a wider industry group, Gardner said.

"You need volumes and volumes to make the economics work," he said. "You need to have as much stuff as you can bring in to keep all of the costs down. The more stuff, the better."

However, so far, there has been very little buy-in from companies, who are sceptical about the benefits and wary about the costs of EPR, Prindiville said.

"I wouldn't say any of the companies are 100% bought into the policy yet, but there is a very high-level nature discussion happening," he said.

Several organisations, including the Society of the Plastics Industry, the American Institute for Packaging and the Environment (Ameripen), the American Chemistry Council (ACC), and the Western Plastics Association are keeping tabs on the issue. While most have not come out with any definitive conclusions, they have expressed concern about additional government regulation.

"It is not clear to us that EPR alone will increase recovery," said Keith Christman, managing director of plastics markets for the ACC. "We have been working to increase plastics recovery through a variety of approaches, including partnerships, research and technical support, outreach and other voluntary programmes."

Research and discussion of the topic will continue, but eventually, companies and the industry as a whole will have to take a position. Washburn, with Nestle Waters, said he hopes the industry will come together to craft the kind of legislation that makes the most sense for the industry.

"If we don't, we are going to end up with a solution that nobody likes," he said. "For now, we still have an opportunity to say, 'Let's be proactive on this - let's shape our own future'."

By: Michelle Klump
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