Rhode Island legislators have introduced a bill that requires brand owners to nearly double the recycling rate for printed paper and packaging over the course of two years.

If passed, Senate Bill 2605, introduced in late February, would make Rhode Island the first state in the country to install extended producer responsibility (EPR) for printed paper and packaging (PPP). Last year, Rhode Island legislators tried unsuccessfully to get similar legislation passed.

In extended producer responsibility systems, product manufacturers are mandated to fund and/or manage systems for handling products at end-of-life.

Sponsors of the latest iteration of the legislation developed the bill with national EPR advocacy group UPSTREAM.

“It’s an issue of fairness,” said Matt Prindiville, the executive director of UPSTREAM. “Right now, you have consumer goods companies that create a product, package it in any way they like, and then leave the liability of what to do with that package to local governments around the U.S.”

Is 75 percent recovery realistic?

The current PPP recycling rate in Rhode Island is at 39 percent and would need to rise to 75 percent in two years under the measure. Jamie Rhodes, program director of UPSTREAM, noted that British Columbia’s recently enacted EPR program for PPP has led to increases in recovery that justify the high goal for Rhode Island.

“If these same companies that are responsible for managing a system in British Columbia are able to achieve those types of gains, I see no reason why we should set a goal at any less just because we’re on the other side of the continent,” Rhodes said.

Sarah Reeves, the director of public policy, programs and planning at the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation (RIRRC), told Resource Recycling she thinks the 75 percent goal isn’t going to be attainable. RIRRC is a quasi-governmental entity in charge of managing the state’s solid waste and recyclables.

“In two years, there’s no way that’s going to happen,” Reeves said.

The measure calls on RIRRC to set rules and regulations for an EPR program for brands. It also directs RIRRC to set litter and “plastic pollution” goals.

“It would be a very, very large system and there’s concern that we haven’t actually tackled the overall management processes for the EPR programs we have, never mind creating this massive program,” Reeves said. “We’re wondering if this, as written, is the right path.”

Rhode Island currently has EPR programs in place for five products, including mattresses and electronics, according to a database compiled by the Product Stewardship Institute. Since 2013, several bills have targeted PPP for EPR, but none have passed.

Data from RIRRC’s Solid Waste 2038 report (2038 is the projected year the state’s lone landfill will reach capacity) suggests about 479,000 tons of PPP are generated each year in Rhode Island, with 182,000 tons – 39 percent – being recovered.

A state ripe for policy

UPSTREAM believes a “confluence of factors” have created momentum for an EPR bill in Rhode Island. Rhodes noted that beyond Rhode Island’s landfill constraints, recycling rates have largely stagnated and municipalities are facing increased tipping fee costs. “I think we’re on the right path,” Rhodes said. “I know the legwork is there and I’m optimistic, but I’m not going to promise we’ll be able to pass this bill this year.”

Meghan Stasz of the Grocery Manufacturers Association says her group opposes the measure.

“We have seen similar proposals for EPR for packaging before and much like those proposals, we oppose this kind of regulatory scheme for a whole host of reasons, but mostly because there are just much more cost-effective and efficient ways to reduce our overall environmental footprint and increase recycling throughout the U.S.,” Stasz said in an interview.

Stasz, the senior director of sustainability at the Grocery Manufacturers Association, said the consumer goods industry “is interested in having increased recycled content in our packaging and we are interested in having a steady, reliable supply available to us, but we’re also interested in innovation and finding new ways to get our products to consumers safely and using as few natural resources as possible.”

A hearing on SB 2605 is scheduled for Thursday.