The Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) has been at the forefront of policy debates about giving large, corporate packaging companies complete authority over the recovery and disposal of their own products and packaging, a practice known as Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) for packaging. Packaging contributes inordinately to the solid waste and climate crises that the US faces. Control of this packaging by the major corporations in the country that are producing these products is the wrong approach. ILSR has educated networks of business and environmental justice organizations, calling out the dangers of poorly designed EPR for packaging proposals.
EPR systems that call for control over the recycling sector by large packaging corporations are not needed and would inevitably lead to concentrating more economic and political power in the hands of packaging corporations, Big Waste and Big Soda. This concentration would eliminate citizens and small businesses from access to decision making at the local level.
In poorly designed EPR, Producer Responsibility Organizations (PROs) are given broad latitude to design, build and operate recycling systems. PROs are organized as nonprofits to implement the EPR system and exempted from anti trust laws. PROs are often given the authority to adopt and implement policies, detailing with the force of law who can participate and how they must perform.
This document explains why ILSR and many allied organizations are skeptical about adopting EPR for packaging and traditionally recycled materials and suggests a better way forward.
Our objections to EPR for packaging include the following:
- EPR gives authority over recycling to the packaging companies producing waste and recyclables, and gives their policies the force of law. The companies which could receive this authority under some EPR proposals include the plastics and oil industries, which are planning on burning plastic (‘advanced recycling’) in cement kilns and pyrolysis gasification facilities, which is both environmentally harmful and counter to our overall recycling goals.
- EPR takes democratic decision-making power away from cities and the organized citizens, small businesses, and other local entities that have led the recycling movement for 50 years.
- EPR threatens government jobs, union jobs, and small business jobs that typically offer benefits to their employees. Corporate control over recycling eliminates decision making at the local level where organized citizens and small businesses have direct access to decision making. These local groups have been the driving force in recycling since the late 1960s. Today, grassroots-driven policies are once again changing the recycling landscape. Cities and counties are taking direct control over recycling facilities, switching to more cost effective dual stream recycling, implementing unit pricing for garbage collection (pay as you throw), minimum content mandates, waste surcharges, bans on dangerous and hard to recycle materials, right to repair, universal recycling (state bans on recyclables, compostable and reusable materials from landfills and incinerators).
- EPR threatens small recycling businesses as central control over materials allows producers to pick and choose winners in the economy.
- EPR often results in the greater use of incineration and is not a Zero Waste strategy.
- EPR creates a ‘polluter controls’ policy not a ‘polluter pays’ policy. EPR policy as developed in Sweden in the 1990s called for polluting companies to pay for proper safe management of discarded materials. Packaging corporations altered this policy formula to mean their control over policy formation, implementation and monitoring. This runs directly counter to EPR’s original intent.
- EPR for traditional materials has been falsely presented to the public by conflating EPR for hard to recycle materials (like mercury switches, batteries, paint and mattresses) and EPR for packaging and traditional materials. EPR in British Columbia for packaging has been shown to be ineffective, anti-business and anti-bottle bills. Promoters of corporate control EPR purposefully ignored the facts that recycling in British Columbia has been stagnant since corporate EPR control has been implemented. Economic analysis by independent researchers has shown British Columbia’s EPR system to be unfair to small businesses. EPR corporations in British Columbia have also launched programs to undermine very effective container legislation (bottle bills) that are operated by independent businesses. Pushback from recyclers and Zero Waste activists forced EPR promoters to back off from support of the British Columbia model.
- EPR for packaging and traditionally recycled materials is not necessary given the American Recycling Infrastructure Plan, which calls for traditional investments in recycling, composting and reuse. New state legislation in California (packaging tax) and Texas (plastic rebate program) focuses directly on plastic pollution without industry controls. Innovative state laws are emanating from CA, TX, MA, MI, CO and NY among other states. Local governments have passed hundreds of ordinances to rein in waste and promote recycling. These latter actions embody the energy of the recycling and Zero Waste movements that have succeeded in getting the US to 35% recycling in the past; and they are the pathways to expand and deepen recycling, which has overwhelming support among the American people.
In states like Maine, Oregon, Washington and California, ILSR’s position has been supported as legislatures have rejected poorly designed EPR packaging proposals in favor of smarter, more strategic, improvements in recycling programs that provide more local benefits to communities.
The American Recycling Infrastructure Plan is a progressive national strategy that would build upon local decision-making.
The Sierra Club National Zero Waste Team promoted a national Producer Responsibility Fee, in the form of a surcharge on waste delivered to landfills and incinerators for reinvestment in local and regional programs. State level surcharges have also been adopted in in several states.
Private sector investment of over $5 billion since the China import ban has focused on plastic, paper, electronic scrap and composting. State Right to Repair laws have triggered investments in worker training and reuse capacity across the US. Since the pandemic, there has also been a ‘supply chain eruption’ that has seen reuse operations dramatically increase sales, employment and sales tax payments.
- EPR has shown little progress in any product or package redesign. Except for light-weighting packaging (using less or lighter materials), there have been virtually no changes in packaging design to reduce waste and increase reuse and recycling.
- The beverage industry opposes bottle bills (except when they control the unredeemed deposits) and refillable legislation. After 70 years of fighting container legislation and undermining existing state laws, some key leaders of the beverage industry is now supporting container legislation IF the industry gets to control the unredeemed deposits that are worth hundreds of millions annually. In Connecticut, a new bottle bill law was amended at the last moment to give such power to the beverage industry. Similar efforts are underway in California and Hawaii. In 2021, legislators in Washington and California rejected proposed legislation which included creating an EPR/PRO structure, because a majority distrusted such power in the hands of major packaging corporations.
However, not all forms of EPR are poor public policy. EPR systems that feature municipal reimbursement, that tax packaging companies in order to cover the costs of public management of their packaging can be helpful. Municipal reimbursement EPR is an acceptable form of EPR because there is no PRO middle level bureaucracy, and fees paid by industry go to government agencies for distribution to state and local governments based on local decisions for infrastructure investment.
Supporters of EPR have promoted only producer control EPR until recently, and that’s a mistake. Now, thanks to pushback from Zero Waste activists and EPR skeptics who are concerned about protecting local control over recycling and composting, EPR municipal reimbursement is catching on. Rather than continuing to push for a deeply flawed corporate-control EPR, we encourage more policy makers and advocates to consider the far more acceptable municipal reimbursement approach.