How to fix our broken recycling system
Last year, only 5 percent of plastic waste in the United States was recycled — the majority is landfilled, incinerated or leaked into the environment. Even renewably sourced paper, which is an ideal replacement for unnecessary plastic packaging as it is recyclable up to 25 times, doesn’t even come close to reaching its potential: Three out of every five cardboard boxes in U.S. households are disposed of in the trash, as are two-thirds of mixed paper, resulting in the disposal of at least 4 million tons of corrugated paper and 11 million tons of mixed paper each year.
Our recycling system is broken — but new federal and state policies may help fix it.
Last week, the Biden administration indicated that they may limit the purchase of single-use plastics, and last month the Interior Department announced a phase-out of single-use plastics in national parks and on public lands.
Nationwide, states are considering Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) programs and laws which, when properly designed and implemented, have a proven track record of significantly improving recycling rates, saving municipalities millions of dollars, as well as reducing waste.
Over 40 countries and provinces around the world have tracked more than three decades of success with similar EPR programs, resulting in packaging recycling rates as high as 80 percent. Last week, California became the fourth U.S. state – and second this year – to enact a comprehensive EPR law. As laws come online in Colorado, Oregon and Maine, which was first to pass packaging EPR law in 2021, paper and packaging recycling is expected to increase dramatically.
We must make a shift to the use of packaging materials that advance the transition to a more circular economy, which minimizes and ultimately eliminates waste. For too long, technological advancement and productivity have followed the “take-make-waste” model, in which natural resources are extracted to manufacture products that are disposed of once their useful life is exhausted. This system is not sustainable in a world with finite resources and scarce viable land. Effectively designed EPR programs will provide the incentives that industry needs to replace fossil fuel-based materials, such as plastic and extruded polystyrene foam, with fiber, starch, and other organic materials.
Manufacturers have benefitted for centuries — at taxpayers’ expense — from avoiding any financial or logistical burden for the impact of their products. Cash-strapped municipalities and their constituents have had to literally clean up the mess, while corporate profits have reached record highs. The packaging industry must be incentivized to embrace its environmental stewardship responsibilities. Under EPR, the responsibility for better design and responsible end-of-life management of packaging and printed paper is transferred from local governments, taxpayers and individual ratepayers to the producers who put them into commerce in the first place.
In every state, Extended Producer Responsibility holds the potential to move us forward to a circular economy in which waste and pollution are eliminated, materials and products are circulated at their highest value, and resources are replenished. We will continue to work together to make this vision a reality.
James Asali is the president and CEO of the New York-based Pack Green Coalition (PGC), a non-profit corporation that aims to replace unnecessary plastic currently in use with more sustainable and environmentally friendly alternatives.
Scott Cassel is the CEO and founder of the Boston-based Product Stewardship Institute (PSI), a policy consulting nonprofit that powers the emerging circular economy that has helped enact 127 EPR laws across 16 product categories in 33 states since 2000. He is the former director of waste policy and planning for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.