3 Steps for Navigating New EPR Laws

As US states embrace extended producer responsibility (EPR) programs, brand owners can proactively design or redesign packaging to come out ahead — and win over eco-minded consumers in the process.

Joe Schewe, Director, Packaging Design and Engineering

June 6, 2022

3 Min Read
Image courtesy of RUSLAN NESTERENKO / Alamy Stock Vector

In states like Maine and Oregon, new laws are being introduced to bolster municipal recycling initiatives. Dubbed Extended Producer Responsibility Programs (EPRs), the policies aim to reduce the volume and toxicity and increase the recycling of packaging material. EPR programs will also take the cost of recycling off of taxpayers and put them onto manufacturers by taxing them based on the recyclability of their materials.

These laws have the potential to create real change two-fold: One, by offering fundamentally expensive municipal recycling programs a lending hand with operating costs, while simultaneously encouraging consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies to reduce their carbon footprint. Given many recycling programs across the country have been suspended due to collection costs and inefficiencies, it’s not surprising that many other states are considering similar regulation.

This does, however, pose the question of how CPGs can quickly adopt new sustainable packaging practices in light of these programs. While the laws are still in their infancy — current framework outlines the intention of these programs rather than dictating specific requirements — CPGs should prepare now, starting with a few considerations.


1. Get a handle on how your packaging is currently being used.

Do you know what specific material your packaging is currently made of? How much material you’re putting out? Where these materials are circulating, and to which states?

EPR programs will work by charging producers a fee based on a number of factors, including the tonnage of packaging they put on the market. Therefore, data tracking will be a fundamental component of the legislation, and CPGs can start implementing measurement systems for their packaging output. It’s important to establish a benchmark for the current state of packaging production to track the progress of sustainability initiatives.


2. Engage your design group to look at ways to increase recyclability and reduce toxicity.

Work with your supplier to help prioritize the design of functional packaging that uses recyclable components and minimizes material usage. A large factor of both the Maine and Oregon laws is charging higher rates for packaging that is hard to recycle. Therefore, CPGs can consider working with materials such as aluminum and paperboard packaging, which are extremely recyclable, and avoid materials or material combinations that may hamper the recyclability of packaging.

The laws target products containing certain toxic chemicals, such as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). And as such, CPGs can also look to limit the toxicity of the materials used. Another example comes out of laminate and certain coating additions, which may offer a variety of aesthetic benefits, but may limit recyclability of the packaging.

Your design group can help you navigate such decisions and necessary changes to your packaging in a manner that also maintains your brand image and the desired product that your customers have come to expect.


3. Look beyond the laws — and at the whole picture of what makes packaging design sustainable.

Sustainable packaging is not a one-size-fits-all solution. It’s critical to base a design process around the nuances of a given operation, considering acceptable materials, company sustainability goals, and the unique needs of the packaging itself.

Consumer awareness on sustainability is also critical to success. A July 2020 report from McKinsey revealed more than 60% of consumers go out of their way to recycle and purchase products in environmentally friendly packaging. An organization’s sustainability improvements become more impactful when consumers easily recognize recyclable materials so they can take action.

By putting the responsibility back on brands to make their packaging more recyclable-friendly, these EPR programs could help accelerate the packaging industry towards a more sustainable future. We’ve seen similar programs find success in Canada and in parts of Europe — and these programs take on many forms. While there’s no way of saying how we’ll see these programs shape up in the US, CPGs should focus on improving their packaging sustainability holistically, so when these laws do crop up, they will be better positioned to navigate the legislation requirements successfully.

About the Author(s)

Joe Schewe

Director, Packaging Design and Engineering, RRD Packaging Solutions

As a Certified Packaging Professional with more than 20 years in the packaging industry, Joe Schewe, director of design and engineering at RRD, leads a team of designers that focus on structural design and project management to deliver positive results for many of the most discerning brands.

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