Forum Recap: Extended Producer Responsibility legislation for packaging

March 19, 2021

On Friday, February 26th, we hosted a webinar on extended producer responsibility (EPR). The forum focused on how extended producer responsibility legislation for packaging can help us achieve our waste reduction goals. The webinar featured presentations by several experts in waste and policy, followed by a Q&A session.

A recording of the forum can be accessed here.

NYLCV President Julie Tighe kicked off the webinar and made clear that although waste is often overlooked, it is New York’s fourth largest contributor to climate change. Annually, the state landfills six million tons of waste, while shipping another six million tons off to other states. She added that foreign countries are accepting less and less of our waste for recycling, while municipalities are cutting their recycling programs. However, Tighe said, it does not have to be this way, as we can pass legislation to ease the recycling burden on municipalities while encouraging manufacturers to adopt more sustainable practices.

The session then featured State Senator Todd Kaminsky, Chair of the Environmental Conservation Committee and sponsor of the Extended Producer Responsibility bill. Kaminsky started by saying that EPR is used throughout the world, and pointed out some problems with the current system. He said that many items we place in recycling bins end up in landfills, while municipalities struggle to gather the funds necessary for recycling and upgrading outdated systems. Kaminsky then talked about how EPR legislation can help remedy the situation. Under EPR, producers would have to fund the recycling of their paper goods and packaging. The amount of money charged to the producer would depend on the quantity and sustainability of their products. These funds would go to municipalities, who could use them to fund and improve their recycling systems. Thus, the creation of a circular economy and an explosion of green jobs.

The first presentation was by Scott Cassel, who has been a key leader in the US product stewardship movement for the past twenty years. He is the founder and CEO of the Product Stewardship Institute. In 2019, the institute facilitated the development of a packaging EPR framework for the state, which formed the basis of Senator Kaminsky’s bill. Cassel began by explaining how our recycling system currently works. He said that the system is currently fragmented, with consumers paying producers for the product, and taxpayers paying the municipality, who in turn pays for the recycling. Under EPR legislation, the consumer pays the producer, who in turn pays municipalities and/or recyclers for recycling. EPR extends the responsibility of the producer past product design into end-of-life product management. The benefits of EPR include reduced taxpayer and ratepayer burden, increased recycling statewide, the creation of a network of accountability, and promoting sustainable product design. It also increases the likelihood that the things we place in the recycling bin end up actually being recycled instead of in a landfill.

Cassel said that although there are no EPR laws in place for packaging yet, there are 119 EPR laws and 10 state bottle bills across the country that have been passed. New York currently has EPR laws for paint, batteries, thermostats, electronics, and pharmaceuticals. New York is among nearly a dozen states introducing EPR laws for packaging and paper products. Packaging EPR laws have spread across the world, and have been in place across Europe for decades. The programs in British Columbia and Belgium have been especially successful. Cassel also mentioned the benefits we have observed nationwide from paint collection, including the recycling of 38 million gallons of paint, the creation of over 200 jobs, and savings of $200 million by taxpayers and local governments.

Adrienne Esposito is the co-founder and Executive Director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment. She has served on numerous boards and advisory committees across the local, state, and federal levels, and is widely considered an expert on environmental issues. She emphasized how we have a solid waste management crisis and talked about where our garbage actually ends up. She presented Long Island as an example, where most waste goes to either incinerators on the island and a landfill in Brookhaven, or to upstate and out-of-state landfills. The Brookhaven landfill will close in 2024, while the upstate and out-of-state landfills are quickly filling up. We do not have a plan for where to put waste when these landfills fill up. She said that the most effective option is to reduce our waste in the first place. She also said that there are a multitude of environmental benefits from EPR legislation, including the reduction of trucking, greenhouse gases, and space used in landfills.

Andrew Radin is Director of Recycling and Waste Reduction for the Onondaga County Resource Recovery Agency, and has thirty years of experience in recycling and solid waste. He is also the Chair of the New York Product Stewardship Council. He began his presentation by talking about the aforementioned EPR legislation already implemented in the state. He spoke about the impact of these EPR bills, including the collection of 600 million pounds of e-waste since 2011, and New York City observing a 60% reduction in e-waste. He talked about the current challenges our country faces in recycling, including depressed markets, low material recovery rates, confusion among residents, and outdated technology. Statewide, 1.5 million tons are recycled annually, but at an $80 million cost. Additionally, 860,000 tons of recyclables end up in the trash annually. Inadequate funding has prevented municipalities from stepping up public education efforts and modernizing their recycling technology. The goal of EPR legislation is to both modernize the material recovery system and place the costs on the manufacturers who benefit from selling products. EPR legislation will lead to increased material recovery rates, green sector jobs, and infrastructure investment, while decreasing packaging waste, greenhouse gas emissions, and costs for municipalities.

Tom Outerbridge has worked in recycling and composting since the 1980s. He has worked as General Manager for SIMS, which processes all curbside recycling collected by the DSNY, for the last 18 years. Additionally, he is on the New York Produce Stewardship Council. He emphasized the importance of EPR legislation, which has the potential to address over 40% of the residential waste stream. He also said that EPR laws in Canada are flexible and can be adjusted. He also mentioned how we have developed innovative ways to reduce waste, such as using ground up glass in cement. Outerbridge said that EPR can help with the recycling of polypropylene, which is currently expensive and fragmented. He also talked about how the paper recycling markets have collapsed, to the point where processors are charging municipalities for the paper waste they traditionally paid for. He then talked about how EPR is encouraging producers to develop more sustainable products, bringing up a French law requiring producers who use nonrecyclable plastic to pay more.

The presentations were followed by a Q&A session. During the session, Cassel said that EPR legislation will reduce the cost of recycling for tax- and ratepayers, as well as increasing the prevalence of sustainable packaging. He also said that municipalities will spend a set amount on recycling, rather than being uncertain of how much they need to allocate. Outerbridge said that the EPR bill will not change what consumers have to do for recycling, who can still use curbside collection. Esposito added that the current numbers system for plastics is not ideal. Cassel said that fees under the EPR will be based on the weight and the type of packaging material, which will encourage companies to use less and sustainable packaging. He said that reuse and source reduction are most important, but also mentioned that “pay as you throw” consumer responsibility legislation can be passed in conjunction with EPR bills.

Esposito said that producers will always put up a fight against producer responsibility legislation, but ultimately go along with, and sometimes benefit from, the new policies. Outerbridge added that packaging decisions are made from both cost and marketing standpoints. Cassel added that it is unfair to companies which use sustainable packaging to make them pay the same as every other company. He also said that producers know that EPR laws are coming, but have only wanted to engage recently due to political pressure. Esposito said that EPR benefits the climate through decreasing the amount of waste transported and the amount of fuel used. Outerbridge added that we can calculate the energy and water savings from recycled materials. Radin said that the EPA estimates that for every ton recycled, there is a 2.4 metric ton reduction in CO2 emissions. He said that this can become a 1 to 2 million metric ton reduction through the EPR bill’s public education efforts. Cassel stressed that the EPR is a key climate change strategy, saying that 29% of greenhouse gas emissions come from product manufacturing. If we recycle, we do not need to use the energy needed to mine as many materials. Kaminsky said that the newspaper industry is heavily opposing the bill, but said that the EPR bill has the most co-sponsors of any bill he has ever had except for the CLCPA. Kaminsky added that he is very optimistic of the bill’s passage if people work to increase public support for it. According to Radin, there are over 60,000 tons of newspapers and 40,000 tons of magazines recycled by municipalities annually, and the costs associated with the recycling process as it is now are not sustainable. Kaminsky added that the challenges in passing the bill are associated with its technical nature and the fact that most people do not think about recycling.

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