Municipalities and taxpayers in the United States have been footing the bill for recycling programs for too long. It is a funding model that is rooted in a time when our wastes were much simpler. The problem today is that our waste stream is more complex than it has ever been. It is filled with high-tech materials that are not made locally. Materials that are loaded with chemicals and that don’t biodegrade. As a result, we are trying to manage waste in an outdated way. It is hurting our environment and our communities, and keeping our recycling rates low.
We need to reform the way we manage the nation’s complex waste stream, and thankfully we can look to other countries for an effective solution. Many countries around the world such as Australia, Brazil, Canada, all 28 countries in the EU, and Russia, use a system called Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) for packaging. EPR is a state of the art policy solution that has helped boost their recycling rates well above 50% and encouraged corporations to develop more environmentally responsible products.
EPR policies are effective at dealing with complicated waste materials because they give the manufacturers a financial stake in making sure recycling programs are robust. Maine already has eight successful EPR policies for hard-to-manage products like batteries, mercury thermostats, mercury auto switches, paint, mercury lamps, electronic waste (e-waste), cell phones, and beverage containers.
Using an EPR model for recyclable materials makes sense because the power to fix the problems with our recycling economy largely lies with governments and large brand owners. Consumers and taxpayers have little choice or control over the recyclability of the packaging materials that accompany the products they must purchase.
Under the current system, brand owners and the producers of packaging benefit greatly because taxpayers fund 100% of local recycling programs. These companies are free to sell any kind of product into our economy without taking any responsibility for helping communities manage the product at the end of its life. Brand owners will say that they are voluntarily helping communities by setting environmental goals for their businesses, but experience shows that self-imposed goals often fall short and don’t make a meaningful impact. It is time brand owners get involved and help us manage the waste products they profit from.
The amount of waste polluting our lands and waters grows every day. The plastic pollution crisis is a direct result of poorly managed recyclables and wasteful packaging design. We need to take bigger steps and fix the fundamental flaws in the way we plan for recycling to avoid irreversible effects of excessive waste.
It’s time to think about waste in a new way; to see that our waste and recycling problems are not the fault of the consumer, and that there are systemic problems that can only be fixed by strong government policies that incentivize businesses who benefit from putting recyclables into our communities, to engage in waste reduction and create a circular economy for their products.