Is international EPR a viable roadmap for U.S.?

Is international EPR a viable roadmap for U.S.?

By Bobby Elliott, Resource Recycling

April 3, 2014

A study released last week by two industry groups suggests extended producer responsibility (EPR) programs abroad are leading to higher packaging recycling rates. What's far less clear is whether similar strategies would work stateside.

Taking stock of 11 EPR programs in Australia, Canada and Europe, PAC NEXT and the Product Stewardship Institute (PSI) found EPR programs for packaging and printed paper (PPP) led to recycling rates generally between 61 and 74 percent, but in some cases boosted rates all the way to the 80 percent level.

The Canadian province of Manitoba represented the least successful program, with a study-low recycling rate of 52 percent in 2011. That rate, however, still surpassed the U.S. 2012 packaging recycling rate of 51.5 percent. In the words of Scott Cassel, PSI's CEO, "The average U.S. recycling rate is much lower than the average rates for most European countries with EPR for packaging systems."

Collectively, 27 EU member countries have raised the packaging recycling rate from just above 50 percent in 2005 to above 60 percent in 2011, dispelling the opinion that producer-led systems can't gain traction, Cassel says.

But Chaz Miller of the National Waste & Recycling Association (NW&RA) says comparing the effectiveness of U.S. and European packaging recycling systems is "comparing apples to oranges." According to Miller, who serves as director of policy and advocacy at NW&RA, several factors complicate such an analysis, including high population density overseas and divergent methods for collecting and counting data.

Moreover, Miller says growth in U.S. recycling of packaging since 2000 "has been pretty robust." U.S. EPA data shows the packaging recycling rate going from 38.1 percent in 2000 to 51.5 percent in 2012. "That's definitely progress," Miller told Resource Recycling.

While producers may have expertise in making and selling products, they have "absolutely no expertise in recycling them," Miller said, arguing attention should be paid to methods that have helped the U.S. recycling infrastructure thus far, including mandated recycling targets, pay-as-you-throw programs and landfill bans. Addressing multi-family housing recycling is also a top priority for NW&RA going forward.

Cassel, however, told Resource Recycling that while "EPR systems are complex … the more we can understand the various elements of how programs are designed and operate in other jurisdictions, the less abstract the discussion becomes about how an EPR program might work in the U.S."

"Hopefully, these data will allow those of us in the U.S. to have a more informed discussion and debate about how EPR programs operate worldwide, how they might work in the U.S., and whether complementary policies or voluntary strategies can hope to achieve the same results," Cassel stated.

The PSI and PAC NEXT study finds that the greatest recycling results are reached when a suite of best practices are put in place alongside an EPR system.

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