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Extended Producer Responsibility and Bottle Bills Shaping the Future of Recycling

Photo by Tingey Injury Law Firm on Unsplash

Consumer confidence in recycling really diminished in the US after China banned the import of most plastics and other materials destined for the country’s recycling processors in 2018. The fact is that recycling is a business, driven by the market, and plays a vital role in managing waste which has a social benefit. Typically, the government provides services to benefit society if there isn’t an existing market to provide those services. In the case of recycling, it has had a market and so when the market fails, or suffers, so do the societal benefits. After losing the Chinese market, recycling suffered. However, the right policies can bring new life back to the recycling industry and support the necessary growth that we need to move closer to a circular economy, an economy that keeps materials in circulation for as long as possible.

Extended Producer Responsibility, EPR, has come on the scene in the past two to three years with an aim to transfer the responsibility for the end of life of packaging material to the producer. California, Oregon, Colorado, and Maine have all passed legislation that requires producers to support improving the infrastructure necessary to collect packaging material after the consumer is finished with it. As each of those states goes about formulating the rules that they believe to be necessary to garner producer support for building the collection infrastructure, there will be differences on what each producer must do to meet the mandate across the four states. This introduces a high level of complexity and as more states adopt their own EPR laws, an increase in consistency will become even more necessary. However, the principles behind EPR will be the way forward in the future to improve recycling.

Bottle bills are another policy tool that offers promise to bring about greater circularity. Bottle bills require a deposit on a container that is refunded when it is brought back to be recycled. Bottle bills have shown to reduce litter and increase the recycling rates of containers. Currently, 10 states have bottle bills with Vermont passing the first version back in 1953. The states with the highest return rates also offer the most money for the containers upon return. Recently work to improve the efficacy of bottle bills has been necessary and has involved increasing the amount consumers redeem when they return their bottles.

The bottom line is that to realize greater circularity we are going to have to have the right policies in place. Policies to ensure that all producers are on a level playing field and contributing to the solution along with policies that incentivize consumers. Increasing our awareness of the policies that work allows for a more informative dialogue which can lead to greater advocacy for effective policies.

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