US EPR adoption to drive up plastic recycling rates over time
ATLANTA (ICIS)–The adoption of extended producer responsibility (EPR) laws in more US states will drive up plastic recycling rates over time, a consultant said.
“We’ve seen over the last 20 years a real explosion in the use of EPR as a policy tool for packaging and paper products [PPP]. It was in the EU and has now expanded to most of the industrialised world and starting to take hold in the US as well,” said Resa Dimino, managing principal at consultancy Resource Recycling Systems (RRS) and managing partner at RRS subsidiary Signalfire Group.
“We’ve come to the realisation in the US that our recycling system needs a stable and secure funding source,” she added, noting that China’s ‘National Sword’ policy exposed the fragility of the US recycling system.
China’s National Sword policy in 2017 banned imports of plastic waste and other waste, forcing other nations to deal with their own waste issues rather than exporting the problem.
Dimino spoke at the ICIS Recycled Polymers Conference in Atlanta, Georgia, US.
EPR is a policy approach where producers of a product or package – namely the brand owners rather than converters or resin producers – take responsibility to manage that product or package at the end of its useful life, explained Dimino.
The responsibility can be financial or operational, or often a combination of both, she added.
In the US, EPR laws have been passed in four states so far: California (2022), Colorado (2022), Oregon (2021) and Maine (2021), with others having introduced legislation.
“We think most of these states are going to be active as we move into 2023 – states like Washington, New York, Minnesota, New Jersey and Maryland will all have very active EPR debates,” said Dimino.
Municipalities are not a resilient funding source for recycling, she argued, pointing out that when costs change dramatically, they are not ready to cover these costs.
US recycling rates have also been stagnant or dropping in recent years, she added.
“Clearly what we’re doing is not working…It’s not delivering the material needed,” said Dimino.
ROLE OF THE PRO
Typically, EPR programmes are managed by a producer responsibility organisation (PRO) – an entity created to fulfil the obligations of multiple producers – so that the municipality doesn’t have to deal with getting reimbursed by multiple individual brand owners, she explained.
The PRO essentially manages the recycling programme, coordinating among all the players in the chain – recycling service providers, waste haulers, material recovery facilities (MRFs), local governments, end markets and processors to achieve results. The brand owners pay fees into the PRO to fund it.
Thus, the government moves to the side, although the extent of participation differs state by state.
NOT A RATIONAL ECONOMIC MARKET
“You have municipalities who really don’t see their job as sitting at the beginning of a supply chain. They see their job as serving their residents to make sure recyclables are collected, so they may or may not be doing a serious job of playing their role in the supply chain,” said Dimino.
“When we have such high demand [for recycled plastics], it’s really critical to understand that municipal recycling is not a rational economic market – it’s not a supply/demand market. You can pay more but you’re not going to get more. Why is that? The municipality is not a rational economic actor,” she added.
While a brand owner may pay more for post-consumer resin (PCR) to a converter and a converter may pay more for PCR to the reclaimer which goes back to the MRF in terms of the bale price, the municipality may not see any of that revenue, she explained.
Plus, no financial signal goes to the consumer to compel them to recycle.
“When I’m in my kitchen rinsing out my HDPE [high density polyethylene] milk jug, I’m not likely to be thinking, this is worth $1/lb – I better put this in my recycling bin. That message is not getting across and it’s not driving people,” said Dimino.
EPR has been proven to drive up recycling rates wherever it’s been implemented for packaging around the world, according to a study conducted by the RRS for the state of Oregon.
“Where we could find comparable pre- and post-programme data, in every instance we found an increase in the recycling rate,” said Dimino.
EPR programmes will also take some time to make an impact, the consultant noted.
“For those of you that are looking for materials to come through these programmes, you won’t see any additional funded collection until 2026 or 2027, but the processes are starting already,” said Dimino.
The key obstacles to implementing EPR more widely include entrenched interests in doing things the way they’re done now, along with hesitancy from brand owners to shoulder additional costs and the view that it’s the government’s job to ensure efficient recycling systems, she said.
“In any substantial change, there are going to be winners and losers, and no one wants to be a loser. So, it’s easier to keep things the way they are,” said Dimino.
Focus article by Joseph Chang
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