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Inside The Debate Over Recycling's Future
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Inside The Debate Over Recycling's Future


On June 3, the World Wildlife Fund and the American Beverage Association released a joint memo outlining the dangers of overproducing and under-recycling plastics, which include significantly contributing to climate change and polluting our environment.

The WWF is a champion of environmental causes, while the ABA represents multibillion-dollar corporations such as Coca-Cola and PepsiCo. The ABA appeared to be lying about the industry's abundant waste.

The memo advocated for a different type of recycling policy known as extended producer responsibility, or EPR, which holds corporations accountable for recycling the products they manufacture rather than municipalities and taxpayers, with the hope that it will encourage companies to design more sustainable products in order to save money.

Businesses haven't exactly lined up to participate in EPR schemes in the past, given that the central idea is to hold them accountable for all of their waste, but that's starting to change, according to John Hocevar, Greenpeace's oceans campaign director. "With so much concern around plastic pollution, they've realized that they can't just be against everything," he says.

The ABA is now on the same side of the issue as leading environmental organizations such as Greenpeace, Surfrider, and some chapters of the Sierra Club, which is exemplified by the Sierra Club's June 16 announcement that it is suing Coca-Cola for misleading consumers about its recycling practices.

While the major environmental organizations and the ABA appear to agree that EPR is the solution to America's growing pile of plastic, other sustainability advocates believe that something is amiss and that EPR's supporters in the business world are simply exploiting an opportunity to undermine the entire recycling system.

“It’s absurd that the people who cause the pollution are the ones who have to clean it up,” said Maurice Sampson, the eastern Pennsylvania director of Clean Water Action.

EPR reignites a long-standing, fundamental debate in environmental politics: Is it possible to collaborate with corporations without giving up too much control?

“We can’t blame a rattlesnake for being a rattlesnake,” Sampson and others argue, “just remember which end bites.”

Our Current Recycling Situation Must Be Changed

In the United States, recycling typically works as follows: towns and counties contract with a variety of businesses to collect, sort, and recycle or dump everything their residents throw away.

What isn't recycled — which includes more than 90% of plastics — is sent to a landfill or incinerated, and what is recycled isn't always turned into the next generation of goods in the United States. Until recently, roughly half of the nation's reclaimed plastics were exported, with China being the biggest buyer.

In 2016, the United States shipped nearly 700,000 tons of used plastics to China, where cheap labor could be used to sort and recycle the plastic into a variety of products to fuel the country's rapid economic expansion. However, as China's economy has slowed and its own garbage-producing middle class has grown, the country has tightened its standards and purchased far less of the world's trash, severing a huge revenue stream.

The price of recycled high-density polyethylene, the type of plastic used in outdoor furniture, fell 60% from its 2014 high in 2018, as did the price of other types of recyclables, while the cost of collection, processing, and the like became more expensive than market prices for recycled materials.

Suddenly, towns went from making tens of thousands of dollars selling recyclables to paying hundreds of thousands to get it off their hands, while the United States continues to produce more than 30 million tons of plastic per year with insufficient capacity to handle it.

The enormity of America's waste problem becomes unavoidable in the absence of an easy destination for its recycling, which is where EPR comes in.

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For a long time, the concept was limited to the most difficult-to-recycle items, such as batteries or paint, but market changes have made it a more appealing solution for other materials. The European Union already uses EPR for various packaging materials, and Canada has a variety of provincial programs.

EPR can be implemented in a variety of ways, ranging from businesses simply reimbursing municipalities for the cost of recycling the materials they produce to businesses overseeing the entire recycling process.

The concept is gaining traction in the United States, with Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.) introducing the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act in March, which restricts single-use plastics, imposes a moratorium on the expansion of plastic production facilities, and limits waste export. The bill would also establish a full EPR program for paper and packaging products, which means pr

Locally, the Maine House of Representatives recently approved an EPR bill that covers packaging, which is now being debated in the state Senate. Another EPR bill in the New York Senate is awaiting addition to the calendar for debate. Washington state nearly enacted EPR in April, but the program was ultimately removed from a broader recycling bill.

Environmentalists are divided.

The bill would require companies that produce packaging, including containers that hold food or drink, to form producer responsibility organizations that pay for and oversee the full life cycle of the packaging waste they produce. Environmental groups are mostly enthusiastic about the federal bill, but the EPR language is less widely supported.

Producer responsibility organizations effectively act as agents for these companies, negotiating with municipalities and the waste industry.

“What this means is that residential recycling will be controlled by a monopoly,” Chaz Miller, a former National Waste and Recycling Association policy director who spent a decade at the EPA, wrote in a recent Waste360 column. “A national EPR group will have unprecedented power over recycling.”

Greenpeace's Hocevar believes the monopoly concerns are exaggerated. "That is not something that any of us want," he says, adding that the Merkley-Lowenthal bill's mandatory stakeholder participation will rein in corporate interests.

However, EPR reignites a long-running, fundamental debate in environmental politics: Is it possible to collaborate with corporations without ceding too much control?

Many environmental organizations say yes, at least in this case: the Break Free From Plastic coalition, which supports the legislation, includes more than 500 environmental organizations in the United States.

The ABA and major packaging manufacturers such as Unilever and Walmart have reached an agreement.

Opponents argue that EPR cedes grassroots control over recycling, resulting in a massive corporate-managed ecosystem that threatens to overwhelm smaller municipalities and small recyclers.

“In other words, citizens would give up their right to vote on solid waste management and recycling decisions, and would be forced to rely on consumer actions to address beverage industry fiat,” wrote Neil Seldman, a waste expert with the Institute of Local Self-Reliance, in 2018.

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Seldman believes that the widespread support for EPR in the environmental community is a result of bandwagon support following the announcement of major environmental organizations' support.

Even within those groups, the federal bill's version of EPR is not universally supported.

“The Sierra Club is concerned about how extended producer responsibility policies have been implemented in North America, particularly for printed paper and packaging (e.g., British Columbia),” Gary Liss, of the Sierra Club’s Zero Waste team, wrote in an email, adding that those are provisions “that the Club would like to ensure are better addressed.”

Furthermore, the Sierra Club’s 2019 National Zero Waste Policy states that the organization supports “fiscal responsibility, but not necessarily physical responsibility” for waste producers, and some Sierra Club chapters, such as those in Ohio and Nebraska, are members of the coalition that supports the bill.

“We have divergent views within the community,” said Sonya Lunder, a senior toxics adviser at the Sierra Club, noting that the complexity of EPR leads to heated debates about the best version of the concept.

In British Columbia, How Does EPR Work?

British Columbia's system is the most similar to the EPR system proposed in the Merkley-Lowenthal bill; the Canadian province has established 19 industry-funded stewardship organizations, each of which is responsible for managing product waste.

For packaging and paper waste, all businesses that generate more than $1 million per year and produce more than 2,200 pounds of packaging and paper materials must join Recycle BC — or RBC — which has approximately 1,200 members.

Another organization, Encorp Pacific, specializes in beverage containers; it has 374 members and requires any brand owner, distributor, or retailer selling sealed beverages to join.

British Columbia's system, like the one proposed in the Merkley-Lowenthal bill, is considered a full producer responsibility system. Stewardship organizations such as RBC and Encorp fund and coordinate the entire system of picking up, sorting, and processing waste. Importantly, they do not directly employ anyone doing those jobs. Instead, they contract with existing recycling businesses either directly or through intermediaries.

It is also up to the EPR organizations to decide what happens to the materials that end up in provincial recycling facilities.

“Everyone has this idea that there is a bottle fairy who refills and makes a brand-new bottle, but that is not what happens,” said Corinne Atwood, executive director of the BC Bottle and Recycling Depot Association, an organization that represents facilities in the province that process beverage containers and negotiates with Encorp to collect and sort the bottles they are responsible for.

RBC and Encorp sell some of their reclaimed waste abroad, but the plastics, metals, and glass they collect typically end up in Canada or the United States, where they are recycled into a wide range of materials, from insulation to sandblasting material. Recycled plastic food containers, on the other hand, are rarely used to hold food again. Food package manufacturers almost always use virgin plastics, which means that recycled plastic food containers are rarely used.

EPR supporters argue that a centralized system means municipalities don't have to worry about paying for much of waste management, recycling facilities have a guaranteed client, and organizations like RBC are required to match government-mandated recycling rates based on the total calculated amount of material that their members sell in British Columbia.

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Municipal recycling participation, according to David Lefebvre, RBC's public affairs officer, is proof of the system's effectiveness. Municipalities and waste processing depots are not required to coordinate with RBC, but most do.

Atwood said the recycling facilities she represents have little choice but to work with the EPR stewardship organizations, which she describes as a "full monopoly to overtake other people's existing businesses." She also claimed that Encorp, the beverage container stewardship organization, does not provide bottle depots with a real seat at the table.

Some data, like the decision-making process, is only available to those in the stewardship organization. Recycling is complicated. While British Columbia has the highest recycling rates in Canada, the organizations don't make much data publicly available, aside from weights and costs.

It's absurd that the people who cause pollution are also the ones who have to clean it up.

Eastern Pennsylvania Clean Water Action Director Maurice Sampson

Miller, who wrote a white paper on RBC for three recycling associations, found data to be scarce. “They give you financials, but they’re extremely vague,” he said. One metric outlined in RBC reports — weight — becomes a weak predictor of effectiveness as packaging trends toward lighter, cheaper, and less sustainable materials.

According to a 2020 report from York University in Toronto, RBC's costs increased by more than 25% between 2015 and 2018, while landfill diversion increased only slightly. "They were paying more to recycle less," report co-author Dr. Calvin Lakhan told me.

Alex Truelove, director of the Zero Waste Campaign at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, acknowledges that the British Columbia model isn't perfect, but points out that the U.S. legislation includes a number of provisions that set it apart, such as the formation of an advisory committee of local governments, recyclers, environmental organizations, and Indigenous groups, as well as a moratorium on virgi

“All of those details matter a lot in terms of how effective a program is,” Truelove said, “and I believe it can be done in this version of the bill.”

Seldman, the waste expert, believes it is still not enough to protect EPR from corporate malfeasance. He advocates for a system in which producers are charged for the cost of recycling their waste and otherwise kept out of the waste management world. Seldman is putting together an EPR skeptics group in the hopes of attracting the attention of Merkley, Lowenthal, and Break Free From Plastics.

Even if he is successful, the coalition may be unwilling to cede any ground.

“I believe it would be a huge missed opportunity to remove EPR from the bill rather than making it strong enough to work,” said Greenpeace’s Hocevar.

At the very least, the EPR debate has highlighted the complexities of the United States recycling system, with its tens of thousands of jurisdictions, thousands of businesses, and layers of regulations and agreements.

“Recycling appears to be simple and straightforward — but it is anything but,” said Sampson of Clean Water Action. “I like to compare it to a hand calculator: it is simple to use, but have you ever built one?”

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