EPR / Product Stewardship Looming in 2020

Media focus on plastics and residential recycling challenges have made extended producer responsibility (EPR) legislation a key issue to watch in 2020, especially for paper, plastics, packaging, tires, and lithium-ion vehicle batteries.

Since state legislators are increasingly moving towards EPR programs, recyclers must determine how they wish to respond.

EPR legislation has often been introduced in past sessions, but rarely had any significant backing; the near-passage of several bills this year highlights that this is no longer the case. Headline-grabbing stories painting recycling as "broken" have convinced many legislators that manufacturers should be tasked with ensuring materials are recycled, with no consideration for potential impacts on existing recycling companies and markets.

For recyclers, EPR means choosing between relying on markets versus accepting the specter of flow control and oversight by government agencies and/or manufacturers to ensure funds are available to process materials that market prices don't support. ISRI members have thrown their support behind large-scale EPR programs twice in the past; with vehicle mercury switches in the early 2000s, and with electronics in 2005.

With mercury switches, making auto manufacturers financially responsible for their removal was seen as the only way to force manufacturers to eliminate their use. With electronics, ISRI's position specifies that producers should only be held financially responsible "until such time as the market for recycling used electronics becomes economically viable." Similarly, ISRI's Position on Producer Responsibility, adopted in 2011, opposes EPR programs on products that "are being manufactured into commodity grade materials and sold into viable, commercial markets," but allows holding producers financially responsible for costs associated with responsibly recycling certain products.

EPR can carry risks for recyclers depending on how a program is structured, most notably in who has control over the flow of recyclable materials. If manufacturers are put in charge of the process, their easiest path to compliance is to choose as few "winning" recyclers as possible to handle their entire stream. Putting control in the hands of a government agency can preserve the existing recycling infrastructure, but will inevitably lead to increased oversight and licensing requirements.

For legislators, EPR models can seem extremely attractive since they are often promoted as cost-free and requiring little oversight or enforcement, as was the case when Connecticut and Vermont introduced tire EPR legislation in 2015. Successful (and unsuccessful) programs have proven the opposite. Without government oversight, EPR programs are prone to abuse by entities bringing materials in from outside the system, a problem often cited with bottle redemption laws and the tire EPR programs in Canada. Manufacturers will also seek to avoid financial burdens, as was the case when mercury switch payments through the National Vehicle Mercury Switch Recovery program were discontinued in 2009.

ISRI's Divisions are forming a work group to consider the industry's Position on Producer Responsibility and whether any changes should be made. You can also use the State Resources and Tracking site to keep up to date on any EPR legislation as it is introduced, or contact Danielle Waterfield at (202) 662-8516 for more information.


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