Nuanced discussion of US plastics EPR legislation takes centre stage at Resource Recycling Conference in Austin, TX
HOUSTON (ICIS)–Bringing to a close Day 1 of the Resource Recycling Conference, six panellists from across the recycling and plastic packaging value chain discussed the good, the bad and the ugly of US plastics extended producer responsibility (EPR) legislation.
Though relatively new to the plastics packaging space, EPR has been applied in the US for the end of life management of several other items, such as electronics and mattresses. Globally, other countries such as Canada and many throughout Europe have already adopted plastics related EPR.
EPR programmes are widely viewed as solutions to reducing plastic waste, by adding additional layers of responsibility on producers for end of life product management.
Essentially, EPR programmes are any solutions that shift end of life cost from municipalities to the producer, summarised Pete Keller, vice president of recycling and sustainability at Republic Services.
If implemented correctly, EPR programmes should increase the amount of plastic waste collected, and thus available for the growing recycled plastics market.
Though these bills are all grouped under EPR, each individual programme varies significantly based on the set-up of the Producer Responsibility Organization (PRO) and the distribution of authority and rulemaking.
Panellist Bree Dietly, principal at Breezeway Consulting, commented “I believe three out of four should not be classified as EPR,” on the grounds that three states broadly removed producer power to change or influence the programme.
Others noted the importance of robust advisory systems, whether through councils or joint management strategies.
This way, stakeholders are able to be involved in determining the “rates and dates” for performance requirements from the programme, said Shannon Crawford, director of recycling and environmental policy at WM.
In addition to rates and dates, some programmes grant the PRO with the authority to determine end markets for secondary commodities.
When discussing the California EPR programme, Keller said, “Material might have to go to a different end market if CalRecycle gets to define what a ‘responsible’ end market is.”
This would not only impact the economic modelling of MRFs, but also the availability of supply for recyclers and reclaimers across the country.
Despite the low confidence in a national EPR programme being introduced, several states continue to consider EPR bills prior to the close of the summer legislative session and in preparation for 2023.
While EPR brings the potential for increased plastic collection, these programmes also come with a multitude of challenges, as municipalities, MRFs, recyclers and producers navigate the implementation of each individual programme.
Beyond implementation, panellists emphasised the importance of flexibility within programmes, as waste streams, consumer habits and end markets evolve with time.
The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced how drastic things can change, as commercial and office based recycling diminished, and at home e-commerce introduced record levels of shipping packaging, often called the “Amazon effect”.
In terms of future consumer behaviour, several panellists voiced concern that if consumers were given free or increased collection access, they may abuse it.
“We have customers who use the bin as a second garbage can” commented Keller.
Aside from increased access to recycling, EPR programmes do no directly incentivise consumers to recycle.
“The US is a consumer culture, we like to buy things.” said Preston Peck, recycle reset project lead at the City of Tacoma.
“They are not going to recycle more because the price of aluminium just spiked,” commented Dietly.
Instead, through EPR producers will be economically invested in collection in order to supplement feedstock prices and overall product costs.
But, all four state programmes do harmonise on one thing, the importance of consumer education.
All four EPR bills require support for educational outreach to consumers, hoping to not only boost collected volumes but reduce system contamination in the process.
Though no system is perfect, collaborative conversations such as these are critical for the success of future EPR programmes.
The Resource Recycling Conference will run through Wednesday, 17 August, in Austin, Texas.
Thumbnail image shows PET flakes