The elephant in the room: a case for producer responsibility

This is a guest post by Claire Galkowski, Executive Director, South Shore Recycling Cooperative.

With so much focus on the recycling crisis, we tend to overlook the root cause of the problem: The glut of short lived consumer products and packaging. Rather than looking for new places to dispose, it is imperative that we look at where it is coming from, and stem the flow. Mining, harvesting, processing and transport are where the biggest environmental footprints land.

In the current system, manufacturers who profit from the sale of their wares have little incentive to make durable products or minimal, easily recycled packaging, or to incorporate recycled feedstock in their packaging. Thankfully, a few corporations such as Unilever and P&G are stepping up. Many more need a nudge to follow suit. Neither are consumers incented to reduce their use and disposal of unnecessary “stuff”. The proliferation of convenient single use products and unrecyclable packaging is clogging our waterways, contaminating our recycling plants and filling our landfills.

Add to that the diminishing disposal capacity in Massachusetts as most of our remaining landfills face closure within the decade, and we are facing a day when the massive amount of stuff that we blithely buy, use once and toss will have no place to go. Consumers who pay for their trash by the bag have some skin in the game to reduce their disposal footprint. While this may encourage the use of less single use “stuff”, this can also result in “wishful recycling”, which is clearly hurting our recycling industry, and is one cause of China’s embargo on our recyclables.

Producers of non-bottle bill products are selling us millions of tons of products for billions of dollars. Most will be disposed within 6 months. Packaging alone accounts for about 30% of our waste, and about 60% of our recycling stream. Once products and packaging leave the warehouse, producers are free of responsibility for what happens to them. A few exceptions are carbonated beverages that are redeemed for deposit, rechargeable batteries and mercury thermostats that are recycled through manufacturer- sponsored programs, which are good examples of product stewardship (*). Municipalities, haulers and recycling processors are left holding the plastic bag, the dressing-coated take out container, the plastic-embedded paper cup, and the glass bottle that currently has no local recycling market.

It’s time for that to change. We need the packaging industry to partner with those of us that manage their discards to help solve this massive problem.

There is a bill in Massachusetts House Ways and Means, H447, An act to reduce packaging waste, that assigns a fee to packaging sold in Massachusetts. The fee is based on the recyclability, recycled content, and cost to manage at end of life. It provides an incentive for more lean and thoughtful packaging design, and to create domestic markets for our recyclables. The proceeds provide funding for improved recycling infrastructure development.

With help from MassDEP, the SSRC and many municipalities are working hard to adjust the habits of our residents, an uphill climb. Recycling companies are struggling to navigate this massive market contraction, and wondering if they can continue to operate until viable domestic outlets are established. Municipal recycling costs are skyrocketing, straining budgets with no clear end in sight.

With help from the consumer product manufacturers that helped to create this crisis, it will be possible to resurrect and revitalize our recycling industry, create domestic markets for its products, and make our disposal system more sustainable.

Waste hierarchy rect-en


States look at EPR, funding cuts, mandates

by Jared Paben and Colin Staub, February 6, 2018, from Resource Recycling

California: The Golden State is advancing a bill calling for mandates on the use of recycled content in beverage containers. The legislation, Senate Bill 168, requires the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle) by 2023 to establish minimum recycled-content standards for metal, glass or plastic containers (state law already requires glass bottles contain 35 percent recycled content). The bill also requires that CalRecycle by 2020 provide a report to lawmakers about the potential to implement an extended producer responsibility (EPR) program to replace the current container redemption program. The state Senate on Jan. 29 voted 28-6 to pass the bill, which is now awaiting action in the Assembly.

Connecticut: A workgroup convened by the Senate Environment Committee has been meeting for more than a year to consider policies, including EPR, that would reduce packaging waste and boost diversion. The group includes industry representatives, environmental advocates, MRF operators, government regulators and more. It most recently met in December and discussed what should be included in its final recommendations to state lawmakers. EPR, which is on the table for packaging and printed paper, was discussed at length. The group is working to finalize its recommendations and could present them to lawmakers during the current legislative session.


(*) The U.S. Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) established a PV panel recycling program in 2016 with the help of SunPower.

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