Worldwide, waste is piling up. As manufacturers, we make lots of stuff. As consumers, we buy lots of stuff. What we don't do well is take responsibility for what happens to all that stuff when we're done with it. In the U.S. 4.9 pounds of municipal solid waste (MSP) are created per person, every day. Only 32.1% of this is recycled or composted, and about 146 million tons of it ends up in landfills every year. A handful of companies are actively taking back production, and new rules are coming to help move others in the same direction.
Nondurable goods are typically products made of paper, paperboard, or plastic. In the U.S., only 53% of homes are automatically provided with curbside recycling, and 6% have no access to recycling services at all. While there is a measure of consumer responsibility in play, every contributing party must play a role if waste is going to be effectively reduced or recycled: producers included.
What is Extended Producer Responsibility?
The guidelines for producers are termed Extended Producer Responsibility, or EPR. According to an intergovernmental agency, the Organisation for Cooperation and Development (OECD), EPR “is a policy approach under which producers are given a significant responsibility – financial and/or physical — for the treatment or disposal of post-consumer products.”
Since the ‘90s, the idea of EPR guidance has been publicly presented in working groups and government entities worldwide. The goal of EPR programs is to place the responsibility of the social costs of waste management, including the environmental impacts of waste, on the shoulders of producers. This extends to every task in a production chain, from packaging to solvents to scraps to electronics and more. Authorities widely agree that to maintain existing practices is to “do nothing” about the imminent threat of environmental deterioration, and in some countries, EPR frameworks are already a matter of legal compliance.
Status of EPRs in the EU
The concept of EPRs began in Sweden in 1990, championed by a man named Thomas Lindhqvist. Early on, the goal was to shift administrative, financial, and physical responsibility from municipalities or governments to producers, creating mandates that force them to take environmental consideration as they create and manufacture products. By implementing responsibility for the lifecycle of a product, producers have to either adapt practices to be more environmentally conscientious or bear the financial burden of not doing so.
Benchmarks in Europe’s journey toward EPRs included a 2005 Thematic Strategy on the Prevention and Recycling of Waste, which highlighted producer responsibility as a policy tool for increasing recycling in areas where the market did not otherwise incentivize it. Then, in 2011, the Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe measures were adopted, which extended producer responsibilities to the whole product lifecycle, including take-back and repair support services.
There are three contexts in which extended producer responsibility is mandated in the EU:
- Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE)
- End of Life Vehicle (ELV) Directives
An additional Packaging Directive invokes EPR to require member states to take measures to ensure consumer access for the collection and recycling of packaging waste. There is some variety in other areas, and in member states throughout the EU, the following waste streams may be subject either to voluntary or obligatory producer responsibility:
- Waste oil
- Paper and cards
- Demolition and construction waste
- Farm plastics
- Plastic bags
- Photo-chemicals and chemicals
- Medicines and medical waste
- Pesticides and herbicides
- Light bulbs and fittings
It makes sense that everyone has to do a part to reduce or better manage waste. Alongside these developments — and because European trends often precede trends in the U.S. — retailers are paying close attention.
Sustainable Product Sourcing: A Retail Perspective
There is no denying that it requires a change, sometimes a significant one, for producers to align with extended responsibilities. While the change is undeniably for the good of the environment, even retailers without a strong mission for eco-friendliness will find compelling reasons to get on board.
The European Union Market for Sustainable Products report provides survey data from five EU countries:
- 85% of retailers reported an increase of the sale of sustainable products in the last five years
- 92% of retailers expect the sales of sustainable products to increase in the next five years
- 76% of retailers are committed to sourcing at least a portion of their supplies in a sustainable way
- 96% of retailers have a sustainable sourcing strategy in place
Large companies are most likely to commit to sustainable sourcing (84%), but micro companies are not far behind (75%). It’s clear that even if it costs time and money to sustain and produce products in a sustainable way, retailers in the EU recognize that the benefits outweigh the costs.
Balancing the EU’s New Sustainability Rules
Two components of the Green Deal in the EU are supporting sustainability and bringing a measure of accountability for requirements:
- The EU Taxonomy
- The Sustainable Finance Disclosure Regulation
It is essential that all standards and guidelines are enforceable, and the EU is making strides in that direction. As is often the case, the United States is following trends set in Europe, and extended producer responsibilities are on the horizon.
Projected EPRs in the U.S.
Lawmakers in the U.S. are hard at work putting forth nearly a dozen bills in as many states about packaging EPR, and that is only the beginning. The bills in motion are prioritizing single-use or hard-to-recycle plastics, with the goal of producer responsibility for the costs of managing materials in the waste and recycling stream.
The Product Stewardship Institute (PSI) is one entity that is supporting these upcoming statutes, which largely center around packaging responsibility and product stewardship. Currently, these are the bills in the lawmaking process:
- California SB54: the Plastic Pollution Producer Responsibility Act, which aims for a 75% source reduction, recycling, and reuse goal.
- Hawaii HB1316: a bill that calls for packaging producer responsibility for waste management.
- Maryland HB36: a bill that requires producers of certain containers, paper products, and packaging to provide a “stewardship plan” to the state, or be banned from selling those products.
- Massachusetts HD1553: a bill that requires packaging producers to have a producer responsibility organization (PRO), as well as submitting a stewardship plan.
- New York S1185: an EPR mandate that requires approval before producers can sell or distribute “covered materials.”
- Oregon HB2592: this bill requires the producers of “covered materials” to join an EPR program and submit a stewardship plan.
- Washington SB5022: a bill that ensures packaging materials are 90% reusable or recycled materials by the year 2040, supported by EPR mandates.
Upcoming legislation is expected in Colorado, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine.
Current Producer Responsibilities in the U.S.
While the United States isn’t as far along in the process as European countries, there is also a traceable timeline of the state of producer responsibility:
- 2004: Maine mandated producer financial responsibility for recycling certain types of electronics.
- Between 2004 and 2011, 24 states enacted an e-waste recycling law.
- 2010: the Conference of Mayors adopted the resolution to shift the burden away from taxpayers.
- 2010: Oregon established an EPR program for waste paint.
- 2017: a Producer Responsibility Study in Connecticut showed the effectiveness of these measures.
- 2021: multiple states with mandated EPR programs, CA has eight statewide product stewardship programs
What Do EPR Laws Cover?
EPR laws are often discussed in the context of plastics and packaging materials, but as you can see, the discussion started around electronics and toxic waste. For instance, 80% of the 83 statewide EPR laws cover products with toxic constituents, primarily mercury. Because each state is drafting laws differently, there aren’t any blanket statements that can provide clarity on exactly what EPR laws will cover in the U.S. Because the trend does appear to be following European regulations, it may be a safe bet that the goods and materials that fall under those standards will eventually be included under U.S. mandates as well.
Responsible Production: Impact on Retailers
Sustainability has become a buzzword, and retailers are often guilty of greenwashing, or making vague statements to market their products a certain way. Extended producer responsibilities set a standard in place that will impact producers directly and incentivize them to adopt better practices.
As these types of laws or mandates become more prevalent, it is reasonable to expect retailers to change their practices for the whole lifecycle of a product. There are a few key ways this could change the game:
- Producers will have to reassess third-party vendors that source materials.
- Producers will have to reassess packaging materials and practices.
- Producers will have to consider the recyclability of their products and measure the environmental impact made at every stage of the product’s lifecycle.
Responsible Production: Impact on Consumers
While EPR is really about placing more responsibility on the shoulders of producers, consumers always factor in. There are pros and cons to these guidelines. In many cases, it costs more for producers to engage in sustainable practices, and if they have to do so, the cost of their products could be passed on to consumers. There are unpredictable elements to this, both market-wide and at an individual level.
Ultimately, consumers make decisions every day about what they buy. Whether it’s water bottles or towels or cars, the purchases we make (like it or not) impact the planet we live on. While rising costs are nothing to ignore, the untold and irrecoverable loss of harming our planet any further is the true risk.
As a Retailer, Here’s What We Pledge
At FiveADRIFT, we know there are no easy answers. We are literally a company that sells sustainable beach towels and sustainable products, and we’ve seen behind the curtain. There are cheaper ways for us to produce things, and we could just be quiet about what we have no control over, but there is a cost to that path that is paid by the environment.
Instead, we’re working with you and our suppliers to understand where our products come from and what we need to do better. All of us — we as producers and you as consumers — share a goal to do good. That’s why we make no claims we can't back up, and we’re honest about what we’re trying to do better. There’s some real effort involved here, but isn’t it worth it? We think so.