By Lynne Plegder, Solid Waste Director, Clean Water Action Massachusetts; Coordinator, Massachusetts Product Stewardship Council
Most of us who promote EPR believe it can change the way products are made, prioritize reuse over recycling, and benefit local economies. How can we shape EPR to accomplish all this?
EPR laws require that brand owners plan for and pay for the reuse or recycling of their products when discarded—but within prescribed guidelines built into legislation. EPR bills should require government approval of the plan. Legislative language can also require, among other things that reuse is prioritized over recycling, and that local businesses have an opportunity to get contracts to collect and process material.
We need different plans for different products. For example, some brand owners take back their products for reuse. In many places in the world refillable bottling is a win-win system that creates local jobs. And when Caterpillar entered the European market, it switched from making new diesel engines to remanufacturing them—that is, processing used machines components to make like-new equipment—with a tremendous savings of energy and resources. On the other hand, a white paper from a new industry-supported model called Recycling Reinvented, which is promoting industry-funded curbside collection of paper and containers says, “Those who collect and process recyclables own the recycled material, even though brand owners pay for the collection and processing.”
EPR is not one-size fits all, but along with this flexibility are certain requirements and standards; this is the role of government in EPR: to protect the commons. This is why corporations fight each and every EPR bill, at least initially. But to stem the tide of junk products we must have some regulation. And given a level playing field, corporations can compete with one another in ways that can serve the public interest.
For an example from the computer industry, recently Epson came out with a printer that has a replaceable maintenance cartridge, which extends the life of the printer for several years, I called the U.S. manager of environmental programs at Epson (which is a Japanese company that has been under EPR regulation for more than a decade) to ask why the company made this change in their product. He said that customers that hang on to their printers continue to buy the ink and the replaceable cartridges from Epson. Also, when a printer does give out, the customer will note that it lasted a long time and buy another Epson. Apparently Epson has discovered a marketing advantage.
An example of another way EPR can play out is in Oregon, where the paint industry contracts with a local government program to remix and repackage leftover paint. As well as collecting used paint, this paint bill addresses "reduce" as well as reuse by requiring the manufacturer to include information on how much paint to buy. This is an appropriate role for the company that makes the paint, and the legislation requires them to fulfill this responsibility.
Here in Massachusetts we have a bill making its way through the legislature that counts reuse as double the value of recycling in reaching manufacturer's quota. How did that provision get in the bill? Because advocates called for it. Yes, democracy can work. (It is also important to note that reuse of a product can happen either through an EPR program or directly from the consumer through reuse outlets in the community.)
There is an EPR bill from the paint industry making its way around the country now that is not perfect, but is getting better as people are determined to make it better. For example, the bill just passed in Rhode Island but this time it has a new provision in it that calls for industry to work with the Rhode Island Economic Development Council so that collection and processing will utilize local businesses. A representative in the RI legislature inserted this provision in the bill, thus helping to shape EPR to benefit local economic development.
Waste reduction can be achieved at the state and local level through EPR legislation and EPR procurement policies, but we have to do more than complain when programs don't work well--we have to make them right. With a swell of grassroots support we will have the leverage to get legislation that prioritizes reduce, reuse, recycle, and local business development. Moreover we can go upstream to change product design and reduce industrial waste; these areas have not been sufficiently addressed by the present system. Cradle2 is a new NGO organization that was formed to bring these needs to the attention of the grassroots base, which we believe is fed up--across party lines-- with toxic and/or wasteful products that can't be reused, repaired, or recycled.
This blog may bring on countering examples of EPR programs that have gone awry. But we must acknowledge that we also have plenty of problems with traditional municipal recycling: stagnating rates, contaminated feedstock, poor working conditions at MRFs, too many residuals that are burned or buried etc. We can’t deny these problems or be complacent; we have to address them with different approaches.
There are problems to be solved with all the Zero Waste strategies and it will take a determined effort to address them. Likewise the determination and creativity of all Zero Waste advocates are needed to shape and support EPR so that it achieves our common goals.