NORWALK, Conn., April 8, 2011 /PRNewswire/ -- The March/April 2011 issue of E – The Environmental Magazine (found here: http://www.emagazine.com/issue/march-april-2011) looks at the growing movement in the United States to force companies that make packaging and products -- from soda bottles to printer cartridges to electronics and mattresses -- to pay for the cost of collecting and recycling the waste they create.
This idea is known as Extended Producer Responsibility, or EPR, and it has already resulted in significant waste reduction and increased recycling across much of Europe as companies have complied by instituting take-back provisions and less-wasteful packaging designs. The closest the U.S. has come to such measures is in the 10 states that have enacted bottle bills, keeping excess plastic out of landfills by making companies pay for the collection and recycling of bottles.
Beyond bottles, some 32 states have now product-specific EPR laws that make manufacturers liable for the cost of recycling TVs and other electronics at the end of their useful lives. Fifteen state laws cover the safe disposal of mercury-containing automobile switches, nine cover the handling of lead-acid batteries and nine address mercury thermostats. Hazardous products are those most frequently covered, but the scope is expanding rapidly.
But despite the momentum at state and local levels, EPR is still far from becoming a federal mandate in the U.S. as it is in Europe and elsewhere (especially in the current post-midterm election climate). As it gains strength locally, however, it will become a force to be reckoned with, enjoying the same kind of widespread public support that recycling has across the country.
Why We Need EPR
Three quarters of what the U.S. throws into landfills today is products and packaging. A lot of it was designed for one-time use, and much of it is toxic. Taxpayers subsidize this waste disposal through their local governments, and if the waste is contaminated it's up to those same taxpayers to figure out and pay for proper disposal. The current system imposes few penalties on manufacturers that put their beverages in one-way, non-refillable containers or swath their goods in excess packaging.
What's more, American recycling programs are increasingly "single stream," which means that instead of pre-sorting paper, plastic and other recyclables, everything is collected together. And that leads to a much higher percentage of spoilage.
According to Susan Collins, executive director of the Container Recycling Institute, "From [separated recycling] collection centers there is a contamination rate of maybe 2%, but it's 25% from single stream."
Buddy Boyd of Gibson's Recycling Depot, which works with a pioneering EPR system in British Columbia on e-waste, says that convenience is no panacea. "Single stream collection of materials increases contamination rates by commingling everything together rather than trying to separate them and make everything whole and clean again," he says. "It's like trying to unscramble an egg."
Electronics collected via the single-stream approach end up crushed together with other recyclables, which defeats any reuse or resource recovery efforts (while also failing to remove any hazardous materials, such as mercury switches).
Bottle Bills Under Fire
Even as EPR moves forward in the U.S., industries who would prefer not to pay for the waste their products generate are hoping to use it to undermine existing laws. Beverage makers in particular are embracing EPR as a work-around in the states (including huge population centers California and New York) that still have bottle bills.
Their new tactic is to publicly embrace recycling, mainly by distributing free bins. The industry likes such one-time payments, not the costly ongoing commitment represented by bottle bills. PepsiCo, for instance, is sponsoring the multi-year Dream Machine recycling initiative that has so far put bins and interactive recycling kiosks in 14 states. Such initiatives sound worthy -- but if they undermine bottle bills as manufacturers seek to do, municipalities will have to bear more of the cost of collection and recycling, and the use of all-purpose bins will result in much more contaminated -- and unusable -- material.
The campaign against bottle bills is getting into high gear. "I think it's quite brilliant how the beverage industry is defining the terms of the debate and co-opting the term 'EPR,'" says Bill Sheehan, PhD, executive director of Product Policy Institute.
E – The Environmental Magazine is a bi-monthly "clearinghouse" of environmental information, news, ideas and resources that is edited for the general reader but also presented in sufficient depth to involve the dedicated environmentalist. E is published six times per year and is available by mail subscription or over the counter at bookstores. E also publishes EarthTalk, a nationally syndicated environmental Q&A column distributed free to 1,850 newspapers, magazines and websites throughout the U.S. and Canada (www.emagazine.com/earthtalk-letter). Single copies of E's March/April 2011 issue are available for $5 postpaid from: E Magazine, P.O. Box 469111, Escondido, CA 92046. Subscriptions are $24.95 per year, available at the same address or at www.emagazine.com.
SOURCE E - The Environmental Magazine