How Maine and Oregon seek to charge manufacturers for packaging waste
Most consumers don’t pay much attention to the packaging of their purchases, unless it is difficult to open where the article is really too packed. But the packaging represents about 28 percent of U.S. municipal solid waste. Only about 53 percent ends up in recycling bins, and even less is actually recycled: According to trade associations, at least 25 percent of materials collected for recycling in the United States are discarded and incinerated or sent to landfill instead.
Local governments across the United States manage waste management, funding it through taxes and user fees. Until 2018, the United States exported huge amounts of recyclable materials, mainly to China. China then banned most imports of foreign scrap metal. Other beneficiary countries such as Vietnam followed suit, triggering waste disposal crises in rich countries.
Some states in the United States have laws that make the manufacturers responsible for products particularly difficult to manage, such as electronic waste, car battery, mattress and tires, when these goods reach the end of their useful life.
Now, Maine and Oregon enacted the state’s first laws making companies that create consumer packaging, such as cardboard, plastic wrap, and food containers, also responsible for recycling and disposing of these products. Law of Maine takes effect in mid-2024, and Oregon follows in mid-2025.
These measures shift the costs of waste management from customers and local municipalities to producers. As researchers who study waste and ways to reduce it, we are delighted to see states move to engage stakeholders, transfer responsibilities, spur innovation and challenge existing extractive practices.
Hold producers accountable
The laws of Maine and Oregon are the latest applications of a concept called Extended Producer Responsibility, or EPR. Swedish academic Thomas Lindhqvist formulated this idea in 1990 as a strategy to reduce the environmental impacts of products by making manufacturers responsible for the entire life cycle of products, especially for take-back, recycling and final disposal.
Producers do not always literally take back their goods under EPR arrangements. Instead, they often make payments to an intermediary organization or agency, which uses the money to help cover the costs of recycling and disposing of the product. Getting producers to cover these costs is intended to encourage them to redesign their products to reduce waste.
The idea of extended producer responsibility has led to regulations governing the management of electronic waste, such as old computers, televisions and mobile phones, in the European Union, China and 25 US states. Similar measures have been adopted or proposed in countries, in particular Kenya, Nigeria, Chile, Argentina and South Africa.
We are excited to see states move to engage stakeholders, transfer responsibilities, spur innovation and challenge existing extractive practices.
Bans on the export of scrap metal in China and other countries have given new energy to the EPR campaigns. Activist organizations and even some companies ask producers to become responsible for more types of waste, including consumer packaging
What state laws require
Maine and Oregon laws define consumer packaging as materials that may end up in the average resident’s trash, such as containers for food and personal or household care products. Excluded are packaging intended for long-term storage (more than five years), beverage containers, paint cans and packaging for drugs and medical devices.
Maine law incorporates some fundamental EPR principles, such as setting a target recycling goal and encouraging producers to use more sustainable packaging. Oregon law includes more innovative elements. It promotes the idea of a right of reparation, which gives consumers access to the information they need to repair the products they buy. And that creates a ““Truth in labeling” working group assess whether producers make misleading claims about the degree of recyclability of their products.
Oregon law also requires a study to assess how bio-based plastics can affect compost waste streams, and establishes a statewide collection list to harmonize what types of materials can be recycled across the state. Studies show that contamination from improper sorting is one of the main reasons why recyclables are often discarded.
Some extended producer responsibility systems, such as those for paint and mattresses, are funded by consumers, who pay additional point-of-sale fees that are detailed on their receipt. The costs cover the recycling or possible elimination of the products.
In contrast, laws in Maine and Oregon require producers to pay a fee to states, based on the amount of packaging material they sell in those states. Both laws also include rules designed to limit the influence of producers on how states use these funds.
Will these laws reduce waste?
There is not yet a clear consensus on the effectiveness of EPR. In some cases this has produced results: for example, Connecticut mattress recycling rate increased from 8.7% to 63.5 percent after the state instituted a repossession law funded by point-of-sale fees. Nationally, the Product Stewardship Institute estimates that since 2007, the U.S. EPR paint programs have reused and recycled nearly 24 million gallons of paint, created 200 jobs and Saved governments and taxpayers over $ 240 million.
Critics argue that these programs should strict regulation and supervision to ensure that businesses take their responsibilities seriously – and most importantly, to prevent them from passing costs on to consumers, which requires enforceable accountability measures. Observers also argue that producers may have too much influence in stewardship organizations, which they believe could undermine the application or the credibility of the law.
Few studies have been done so far to assess the long-term effects of extended producer responsibility programs, and those that do exist do not conclusively show whether these initiatives actually lead to more sustainable products. Maine and Oregon are small progressive states and are not major centers for the packaging industry, so the impact of their new laws remains to be seen.
However, these measures are promising models. Like Martin Bourque, CEO of Berkeley Ecological Center and an internationally renowned expert on plastics and recycling, told us: “Maine’s approach of charging brands and manufacturers to pay cities for recycling services is an improvement over programs that give all operational and material control to the producers, where the fox is directly in charge of the henhouse. “
We believe that the laws of Maine and Oregon could inspire jurisdictions like California which are consider similar measures Where drowning under plastic waste adopt EPR themselves. Waste reduction efforts in the United States have been hit by foreign scrap bans then the COVID-19 pandemic, which has stimulated the use of disposable products and packaging. We see producer compensation plans such as the Maine and Oregon laws as a promising response that could help catalyze broader progress towards a less wasteful economy.