Want to recycle better? Get manufacturers involved.

Producer responsibility laws put the incentive to create recyclable packaging back in the hands of those who make it.

George Frey/Reuters
Bales of hard-to-recycle plastic waste are seen piled up in Salt Lake City, Utah, in May 2021.

Who should pay to recycle all that plastic, paper, and other packaging that come into homes, from milk bottles to those seemingly impenetrable plastic wrappers surrounding electronic gadgets?

The companies selling products, not consumers, should bear that responsibility, says a law just enacted in Maine. That shift in thought, if it continues to spread more widely, could go a long way toward saving struggling local recycling programs, and result in less packaging that is more easily recycled and the reduction of greenhouse gases.

The Maine law sets up a nonprofit group to supervise recycling. Companies will pay fees to the nonprofit based on how much packaging they sell in the state – and how easily recyclable it is. 

The nonprofit then will distribute these funds to cities and towns to help them pay for their recycling programs, now funded with taxpayer dollars. Importantly, the system will also clarify and standardize just what is and isn’t recyclable.

Several other U.S. states are considering similar legislation, often referred to as extended producer responsibility (EPR) laws.

Such laws have been a success in Europe and elsewhere around the world. For example, after EPR laws were put in place, the recycling of packaging and paper shot up from 19% to 65% in Ireland and from 38% to 67% in Italy, according to the Product Stewardship Institute, a Boston-based nonprofit group promoting EPR laws.

Increasing recycling helps reduce production of climate-altering greenhouse gases created when new packaging materials, such as plastic, which is derived from oil, are manufactured.

In Maine, companies will be rewarded with lower fees if they use packaging that is more easily recycled, creating an incentive for them to do so. 

The Maine law “helps to shift the paradigm, which for way too long has focused on the consumer and the consumer’s responsibility and lifestyle choices,” said Janet Domenitz to The Boston Globe. She is executive director of the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group, which is backing similar legislation in Massachusetts.

In the United States, the recycling rate (including composting) in 2018 was 32.1%, according to the latest statistics from the Environmental Protection Agency. That was down from 34.7% in 2015. Many local recycling programs are struggling, especially since China stopped accepting recycled materials from the U.S.

Perhaps one of the biggest benefits of EPR laws may be the opportunity they provide for manufacturers and recycling programs to work in closer harmony. Encouraging the manufacture of products with less, or more easily recycled, packaging should be a win for everyone.

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