The move by states to adopt and implement extended producer responsibility (EPR) for packaging and paper products will fundamentally reshape the landscape for municipal recycling in the U.S. Already, 15.2% of the U.S. population lives in states with laws that obligate producers to finance recycling programs at some level. The 2023 legislative session could increase that percentage substantially.
The four states (California, Colorado, Maine and Oregon) that have enacted EPR laws for paper and packaging have each taken different approaches. The path chosen by the next round of states will determine whether the recast recycling landscape emerges in a cohesive manner, or results in a heterogenous mix of varying requirements.
However, as we move into this next stage of EPR development in the U.S., stakeholders should remember that consistency across the landscape need not eclipse state-specific policymaking – every region has its own existing materials management structure, and this fact is key to local success moving forward.
Areas of consistency
Most stakeholders can agree that a disjointed outcome is not desirable, as illustrated by the challenges in development of EPR for electronics over the past 20 years. In the e-scrap realm, state laws were developed without consideration for the larger context and absent an intentional effort to promote consistency across state policy.
However, it is possible in the U.S. to achieve a level of consistency and alignment across states that supports effective and efficient program implementation and stronger environmental outcomes without sacrificing the elements needed to respond to the specific infrastructure, demographics, culture and programs of each state.
By achieving consistency on a few key factors, implementation will be more efficient, state administrative costs and challenges will be reduced, and producer compliance costs will be less. Furthermore, greater consistency will foster the collection of more consistent data from state to state, allowing for more effective comparisons and creating the foundation for a more robust national database.
Some of the most important elements to consider when striving for consistency include the following:
- Key definitions: Have consistent definitions for what constitutes a producer (i.e., who is responsible), packaging and paper products (i.e., what is included in the program), reuse, recycling, composting and recyclability.
- Minimize exemptions: Limit exemptions for packaging or product types to reduce free riders, ensure that all packaging pays its fair share and reduce confusion regarding how non-obligated packaging is managed and paid for in municipal recycling programs.
- Ecomodulation factors: Whether EPR will influence the design of packaging will depend on whether fees are structured to reward design for the environment or design for recyclability. If states can consistently define and apply ecomodulation factors, this will send a stronger economic signal to producers and result in greater environmental benefit.
- Producer plans: Make program planning requirements consistent to ensure that the programs address the same broad range of parameters.
- Reporting: Require information to be reported consistently across states. This will foster the creation of a robust and comparable set of data.
- Rate measurement and calculation: Ensure that states, producers and service providers are measuring data in the same way and are calculating reuse and recycling rates using the same methodology. This will facilitate more robust evaluation and future goal-setting.
Allowing for differences
At the same time, as programs strive for programmatic consistency, it is important to recognize that each state’s unique circumstance (both operational and political) requires certain elements be tailored to the state-specific context.
These elements include:
- Performance targets: Policymakers should consider whether a state has enough data to set performance targets, or whether additional study is needed. Setting performance targets must consider the programs, infrastructure and performance to date.
- Recycling service delivery: Whether municipalities should deliver services and be reimbursed by the producers, whether producers should contract directly with service providers, or whether those two approaches should be combined in some way will depend on the programmatic and regulatory framework in the state.
- Education and outreach delivery: Every program will require education and outreach, but how that is delivered may necessarily be different from one state to the next, considering factors like ethnicity, demographics and culture.
- Governance: The role and structure of advisory committees and other stakeholder bodies can strengthen program design and implementation but should reflect state context.
- Ancillary programs: Some states may choose to link EPR programs to pre-existing or new policies that govern other aspects of packaging and printed paper, such as reuse targets, organics management, and deposit return systems.
A more consistent approach to EPR program design across states will foster collaboration among states, producers and other obligated parties to share data and resources. This type of collaboration benefits all the stakeholders by streamlining implementation, improving data consistency and facilitating enforcement. This is not a new concept; it can be modeled on efforts like the Toxics in Packaging Clearinghouse or remote (internet) sales tax policy.
Thoughtful approach to achieving consistency
As we consider opportunities to drive alignment from state to state, it is important to recognize that striving for consistency does not mean state policy efforts should embrace less aggressive performance requirements or other provisions and policy approaches that would fall short of the substantive transformation of recycling necessary in the U.S.
Furthermore, consistency does not mean that we need to sacrifice what makes our programs, our communities and our states unique. Being thoughtful about consistency will allow us to maintain our individualism while building a more unified common system that recognizes recycling markets move beyond state borders, as do the supply chains of consumer-packaged goods.
Achieving greater consistency of state programs will require intentional action and collaboration, but it will ultimately pay dividends through a more economically efficient system that drives the environmental and financial equity gains intended by the EPR approach.
Resa Dimino, Garth Hickle and David Stitzhal are the managing partners at the Signalfire Group. Get in touch with them at email@example.com.
The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not imply endorsement by Resource Recycling, Inc. If you have a subject you wish to cover in an op-ed, please send a short proposal to firstname.lastname@example.org for consideration.
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