Extended producer responsibility: A strategy for sustainable materials

Anne Johnson, Director

January 30, 2014

3 Min Read
Extended producer responsibility: A strategy for sustainable materials

There has been steady, and in some cases significant, progress to make packaging lighter, more efficient and cost effective over the past five years. Measurable environmental improvements have been realized as a consequence. As important and admirable as these steps are in making packaging with a smaller footprint, they don't fundamentally move the needle towards the creation of a more sustainable system for packaging materials.

While these types of activities are communicated as "sustainable," they actually represent eco-efficiency. Until we make substantial progress on recovering packaging materials after their useful life and improving the energy and emission profiles of our manufacturing processes, we should be very cautious about using the term sustainability. I am still hopeful that the Federal Trade Commission will come out with guidance that will restrain the rampant practice of calling less bad products "sustainable."

At the Sustainable Packaging Coalition's annual members' meeting in September, we were told by state representatives that we are failing in our efforts to effectively recover packaging. Recycling has been flat for almost a decade in some states despite significant investment. In the U.S., we are victims of our own abundant resources. We haven't run out of space so we don't see reasons to conserve and recover end-of-life materials. In a country that prides itself on its pro-business sensibility, it is interesting that in business, waste is considered poor practice and money down the drain.

Yet in our society, waste is exercised as best practice and justified because it is cheap. In fact, landfilling is cheaper than recycling. Comparing the two, however, is like saying it is cheaper for everyone to have an outhouse rather than a bathroom tied to a sewer system. Of course, it is cheaper, but it is also not a helpful comparison, as the services and products are not equivalent. At some point, society made a decision that public health and sanitation were important, and we decided cheaper wasn't necessarily better.

We are fast approaching a crossroads on this issue of waste packaging, as scarce state and local government resources are stretched thin, and governments are having to choose which public services to fund: schools or garbage collection. Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) is a strategy that internalizes the end-of-life management costs of a product into the product itself, embedding the full life cycle costs.

We heard at the meeting that states are considering EPR, not just for packaging but for a wide range of consumer products to alleviate the largely unfunded mandate that waste management presents to local governments. This also explains that a group of state governments recently asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to convene a dialogue with industry to discuss sustainable financing for municipal recycling. The first meeting of this dialogue took place Sept. 23. State representatives have been quite frank in saying that local and state governments are not in the business of running businesses and are not tied to commodity markets, so they are not well-suited to running materials recovery businesses.

While there is no doubt a long road ahead for this discussion, EPR presents an opportunity to highlight the importance of more integrated approaches to waste management and to extend the environmental and economic value proposition of packaging materials to create systems that fundamentally move the needle toward a more sustainable system for packaging materials. A starting point is agreeing that landfills have no place in a sustainable materials management system.

About the Author(s)

Anne Johnson

Director, Sustainable Packaging Coalition

Anne Johnson is the director of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, a project of GreenBlue (www.greenblue.org). For additional information, email [email protected].

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