More than 40 million households in the U.S. are without convenient access to recycling, according to the Recycling Partnership. We believe everyone should have easy access to recycling, whether it’s via a national bottle bill and/or EPR, otherwise known as extended producer responsibility. The need for EPR stems from a pressing environmental and societal imperative. Our landfills are overflowing, our oceans are choked with single-use plastic and other non-recyclable materials, and many of the products we discard daily contain materials that should be rethought or its lifecycle better managed. Traditional waste management systems, where individuals and local governments bear the brunt of the disposal costs, are proving inadequate in the face of these challenges. EPR serves as a call to action for manufacturers to step up and play a pivotal role in addressing the environmental impacts of their products, from conception to end-of-life.
What is Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR)?
Extended Producer Responsibility, commonly referred to as EPR, is a policy approach that places the responsibility on manufacturers to manage the environmental impacts of their products throughout their entire life cycle. From the initial design and production stages to the final disposal or recycling phase, EPR ensures that the environmental costs associated with a product are borne by those who bring it to the market.
At its core, EPR is about accountability. It challenges the traditional model where waste management is primarily the responsibility of local governments or consumers. Instead, it shifts this responsibility upstream to the producers, ensuring that they play an active role in reducing the environmental footprint of their products.
This brings us to an essential distinction: the difference between EPR and product stewardship. While both concepts revolve around managing the life cycle of products, product stewardship is a broader approach that involves shared responsibility. In product stewardship, everyone involved in the life cycle of a product, from manufacturers to consumers, plays a part in its environmental impact. EPR, on the other hand, specifically targets manufacturers, making them the primary agents of change.
The Origins of EPR
The roots of Extended Producer Responsibility trace back to Sweden in the early 1990s. It was here that Thomas Lindhqvist, in a report to the Swedish Ministry of the Environment, first formally introduced the concept. Lindhqvist's vision was not just about waste management but about a holistic approach to environmental protection. He proposed that by making manufacturers responsible for the entire lifecycle of their products, from production to disposal, we could significantly reduce the environmental impact of those products.
From this initial proposal, the concept of EPR began to evolve and gain traction. The definition became more refined, emphasizing the manufacturer's role in product take-back, recycling, and final disposal. As the potential benefits of EPR became clearer, the idea started to resonate beyond Sweden's borders.
Over the years, EPR has transformed from a regional concept to a globally accepted strategy. Countries around the world have recognized the value of EPR in addressing environmental challenges and have incorporated it into their policy frameworks. Today, EPR stands as a testament to the power of innovative thinking and its ability to drive meaningful change on a global scale.
The Current State of EPR in the U.S.
Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) has been a transformative strategy in many parts of the world, particularly in Europe and Canada. However, in the United States, the adoption of EPR has been more fragmented, primarily taking root at the state level.
As of 2023, several states have passed EPR laws, particularly focusing on packaging materials, paper, plastic products, and food service ware. Here's a snapshot:
- California - The state has introduced the Plastic Pollution Prevention and Packaging Producer Responsibility Act, which mandates a producer responsibility program for single-use packaging and plastic single-use food service ware.
- Colorado - The Producer Responsibility Program for Statewide Recycling Act in Colorado targets single or short-term use packaging materials and paper products, including food and beverage packaging.
- Maine - Maine's Act emphasizes a producer responsibility program for packaging material, requiring producers to pay based on the amount and recyclability of their product's packaging.
- Oregon - The Plastic Pollution and Recycling Modernization Act in Oregon mandates producers of covered products, which include packaging and food service ware, to join and pay into a Producer Responsibility Organization (PRO).
- New Jersey and Washington - Both states have introduced laws that, while not full-fledged EPR, set post-consumer recycled content requirements for specific products.
- Connecticut - The state has passed a bill that focuses on plastic beverage containers, setting post-consumer recycled content requirements.
The Need for a National EPR Law
The rise of EPR programs across various states has brought about both opportunities and challenges for manufacturers and brands. While the primary objective of these programs is to minimize a product's environmental impact, the fragmented nature of state-by-state legislation poses challenges for manufacturers.
Manufacturers are currently navigating a patchwork of EPR regulations. Each state has its own set of rules, targets, and compliance requirements. For instance, while California has set ambitious goals for recyclable and compostable packaging by 2032, other states might have different timelines and criteria. This inconsistency can be burdensome for manufacturers, especially those operating nationally, as they have to adjust their strategies and operations to meet the diverse requirements of each state.
What would work best is a universal EPR to help streamline the process, address localized issues, and standardize milestones. Some of the benefits of a unified national EPR law include:
- Streamlined Compliance - Manufacturers would have a clear set of guidelines to follow, reducing the complexity of adhering to multiple state-specific regulations.
- Economies of Scale - Brands could achieve cost savings by standardizing their sustainable packaging solutions across the board.
- Enhanced Brand Image - A national standard would allow brands to communicate their sustainability efforts more effectively to consumers, enhancing brand loyalty and trust.
The Imperative of Manufacturer Responsibility
For decades, the burden of waste management has been disproportionately shouldered by end-users and municipalities. This system, where manufacturers produce without considering the end-of-life of their products, has led to environmental degradation, strained municipal resources, and placed undue responsibility on consumers. The era of outsourcing waste problems must come to an end.
Manufacturers have a pivotal role to play in the lifecycle of their products. By taking responsibility for the entire journey of their goods, from production to disposal, they can drive innovation in sustainable design, reduce environmental harm, and alleviate the pressures on local waste management systems. It's not just about corporate responsibility; it's about reshaping the very ethos of production in the 21st century.
Our team recognizes the importance of this issue - it's why PATH was created as a responsible brand that addresses the entire lifecycle of bottled water. We aim to keep PATH in reuse as many times as possible before a bottle gets recycled, which is easiest to do with aluminum packaging. We are committed to actively participating in and supporting legislation that champions initiatives like bottle bills and Extended Producer Responsibility. By engaging in these discussions and actions, we can be part of the collective effort to do better and be part of the Refill REvolution.