Topics at a recent discussion of EPR programs included collection, efficiency and harmony across jurisdictions. | mi_viri/Shutterstock

Producer responsibility organizations can help drive efficiency and harmonization in extended producer responsibility programs, stakeholders suggested at a recent conference. 

The Sept. 13  session “The PRO’s Role in Advancing the Circular Economy” at the 2023 U.S. Product Stewardship Forum, hosted by the Product Stewardship Institute (PSI), featured panelists Leslie Hushka, GreenDot managing director; Allen Langdon, Circular Materials CEO; Shane Buckingham, Circular Action Alliance deputy lead; Patrick Wiedemann, Reverse Logistics Group CEO; and Carin Stuart, Call2Recycle steward relations manager. 

Moderated by Philippe Cantin, Éco Entreprises Québec vice president of public affairs and governance, the discussion centered on how producer responsibility organizations (PROs) can encourage and create harmonization in extended producer responsibility (EPR) programs.

Allen noted that achieving harmonization might be an easier feat to pull off in Canada, which has “the ability to engage in a harmonized approach among the jurisdictions.” Circular Materials is a not-for-profit PRO working in Canada. 

He added that he has “empathy for those in the U.S.” who have a lot of work ahead of them to harmonize programs. 

“This process requires a lot of patience,” he said. “We got there but that started back in 2009.” 

In Hushka’s view, the U.S. will not take the same path as Canada. 

“We will not have a national program,” she said. “As much as some of us have advocated for that. You will maybe get to 15 or 20 states harmonized and then there is the rest of the U.S.”

GreenDot is an international EPR management and recycling solutions provider. 

“We will not have a national program, as much as some of us have advocated for that. You will maybe get to 15 or 20 states harmonized and then there is the rest of the U.S.”
—Leslie Hushka, GreenDot managing director

Hushka added that it still might be possible to harmonize other areas of the value chain even if states do not have EPR laws in place, and GreenDot has already started working proactively “to handle states that will not have regulation in place in the next 10 years.” 

Wiedemann, bringing experience with returns provider and compliance manager Reverse Logistics Group, also warned that full harmonization is all but impossible. For example, European Union countries received the same EPR directive, “and still every country has managed to do its own thing.”

“It looks like regulators are not learning that lesson because everyone thinks ‘no, we’re special, with us it’s a little different,'” he added. “Which to a certain extent is true, in the case of the infrastructure set up is different … and you might need some tweaks, but even to the point of the definition of what is a producer and what is an obligated party, that varies from country to country which is making it super complex in the end for the industry.” 

Circular Action Alliance’s Buckingham echoed that “you’re going to end up with different laws, there’s no way around that” in the U.S. He added that it is positive to hear that the four states that have EPR laws for packaging are working together towards some form of harmonization and collaboration. Circular Action Alliance was recently formed by some big brand names in the packaging sphere to serve as a PRO in the U.S. 

Building efficiency

PROs can also create more efficient systems, the panelists noted. Allan said as EPR for packaging is starting to take hold in the U.S., “the next challenge is how do we operationally manage this material in the way that is most efficient.” 

PROs can “achieve efficiencies that would not be possible as individual municipalities or even provinces,” he said. “How do we look at the entire country as a collection of waste sheds?” 

Wiedemann said one way to start is to create a portal that can simplify and automate the reporting process for producers, and then turning collection points into multi-material collection points. 

Collection needs to be a big focus, he said, but also emphasized that PROs “need to make sure you do achieve recycling at the end and not just collection for it to still end up in landfill or incineration.” 

Buckingham warned that creating even something like a standardized fee producer pay to PROs can take years of consultation and discussion. He recommended creating a template and then tweaking it for new producers or materials and “trying to make that experience as consistent as possible for the producer.” 

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