Solid Waste & Recycling

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EPR Trends in the US

The United States has lagged behind Canada in implementing the extended producer responsibility policy approach to product and packaging recycling. Now the EPR "bug" is spreading like wildfire and the issues and landscape have changed radically...


The United States has lagged behind Canada in implementing the extended producer responsibility policy approach to product and packaging recycling. Now the EPR “bug” is spreading like wildfire and the issues and landscape have changed radically in just the past year.

“Full” EPR washed down the west coast of North America over the past decade and has spread eastwards, challenging the unfettered autonomy of corporations and “voluntary” programs promoted by US EPA and the Product Stewardship Institute through multi-stakeholder negotiations in which funding is a “shared” responsibility.

Environmental NGOs have played an important role in bringing “full” EPR to the US. The Electronics TakeBack Coalition — formerly the Computer TakeBack Campaign — played a central role in the passage of producer responsibility laws for old electronic products in 20 states and the City of New York.

Product Policy Institute (PPI) started in 2003 when British Columbia was developing its framework producer responsibility regulation. Our central idea was that local governments were enabling the producers of throwaway and toxic products, and that managing product and packaging waste should be a market function. In the face of disposal bans, unfunded mandates and budget crises, our ideas resonated with local governments. It started what one writer recently called a local government “trash revolt” that’s still gaining momentum.

PPI started by organizing local governments in councils to work for statewide EPR legislation and ultimately framework legislation like British Columbia’s. In 2006, we helped start a Product Stewardship Council in California, based on the model of an existing Council in the Pacific Northwest. The California Council became a model for others in New York, Texas, Minnesota, Vermont and Connecticut. They adopted common Principles for Framework Product Stewardship and have been responsible for the adoption of local EPR resolutions in Minnesota, Texas, New York and Massachusetts. In California, 94 local jurisdictions and local government associations have adopted EPR resolutions. The National League of Cities, National Association of Counties and several state municipal leagues have also adopted producer responsibility resolutions. Impatient at the slow pace of state legislation, some local governments are now talking about moving to passing local ordinances.

EPR is entering a high legislative phase in the U.S., perhaps like the period between 1988 and 1992 when dozens of state recycling laws were passed (all based on the principle of extended “municipal” responsibility). Currently, more than 50 producer responsibility laws covering seven categories of hazardous products have been passed in 32 states. The hallmark of all of these laws is that they are product-specific, address hazardous products, and are state-level. New trends show the EPR movement moving into new territory on all of these fronts.

Framework EPR legislation: In March 2010 the State of Maine became the first state to move beyond product-specific legislation to pass a comprehensive, or “framework,” EPR law. The law does not name any products but rather sets criteria and creates a process for bringing in new products over time. The state environmental agency reports annually to the legislature on product stewardship programs (Maine has five EPR laws, more than any other state) and proposes legislation when new products are deemed appropriate for producer responsibility. Other states have also been active, informed by PPI’s EPR Framework Starter Kit. In 2009, framework bills were introduced in Oregon, Minnesota and California, a discussion bill in Washington and a study bill in Rhode Island. This year bills are in play in California and Minnesota.

EPR for packaging: Most attention so far has been on hazardous products, but attention is starting to turn to packaging. This is being driven by: public concern about wasteful plastic packaging; alarm about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (the California Ocean Protection Council identified EPR as the top priority policy for addressing the problem at the source); Ontario’s blue box program moving to 100 per cent producer funding; adoption of the Canada-wide EPR Plan with packaging as its first strategy; EPA convening a national stakeholder process on product stewardship for packaging; and the soft drink beverage industry sponsoring a bill (H696) to repeal Vermont’s container deposit-refund system and replace it with a mostly municipal-run, multi-material and possibly single-stream residential recycling system for “packaging and printed paper.”

Federal EPR activity: The EPR movement in the US is a grassroots phenomenon: burdened parties (local government) pressed for state legislation. Increasingly, federal activity is being sought. Federal action is necessary to deal with e-waste export issues and with amending the Controlled Substances Act to allow pharmaceutical take-back to pharmacies. Industry typically pushes for federal “solutions,” either to harmonize diverse regulations or to preempt stronger state legislation, or both. Currently, federal legislation is being proposed for e-waste, carpet recycling and mercury-containing lamps. To date, there seems to be little understanding of EPR in Congress; most proposals have been industry-sponsored and rely on taxpayer funding or consumer fees.

This is an exciting time for EPR in the United States. The question is no longer whether we will have mandatory producer responsibility laws for recycling products and packaging. The question now is how to make it work.

Bill Sheehan is Executive Director of the Product Policy Institute in Athens, Georgia. Contact Bill at bill@productpolicy.org


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