Friday, April 12, 2013

Opposition No-Show at RI Hearing on Packaging-EPR

By Matt Prindiville, Associate Director

On Thursday, April 4th, the Rhode Island House Committee on Environment and Natural Resources held a hearing on H5264, “An Act to Reduce Marine Debris and Conserve Landfill Space while Increasing the Recycling of Post-Consumer Packaging," sponsored by Representative Donna Walsh (D-Charlestown).  The bill would put the responsibility for collecting and recycling packaging and printed paper (PPP) onto the companies that sell products into the marketplace.  It would cover all packaging and paper generated from households initially, and would then direct producers to finance collection and recycling for all generators in the state except for industrial and large commercial. 

The bill holds producers to achieve a 75% recycling rate for all PPP generated by 2019.  It also creates a process to create recycling targets for each different commodity type – aluminum, PET, HDPE, etc – to drive continuous performance and prevent higher-value, easily-recyclable materials like paper and aluminum from subsidizing lower value materials such as many of the plastics with little or no recycling markets.  Finally, it directs producers to work with organizations working on marine debris to directly address the problem materials found in coastal cleanups.

Supporters showed up in force and strong testimony was delivered by local and national environmental advocates and businesses.  Jamie Rhodes from Clean Water Action, and the lead advocate working on EPR in Rhode Island, walked the Committee through each provision step by step.  Allen Hershkowitz from the Natural Resources Defense Council delivered passionate and eloquent testimony, citing the many financial and environmental benefits to the state from passing the bill.  Mr. Hershkowitz also stressed the national profile of the bill, reminding the Committee that, “This is one of the most important bills you will work on,” and “All eyes are on Rhode Island.”  Other supportive testimony was given from many local organizations, including local chapters from Surfrider, the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society.

Business supporters ranged from Nestle Waters North America to Environmental Packaging International (EPI), a Rhode Island business providing regulatory compliance services to companies around the world operating under EPR and other product stewardship initiatives.  Victor Bell from EPI reminded the Committee that Rhode Island was one of the first and only states to pass an EPR-type initiative, which put a tax on all packaging to pay for litter prevention and cleanup. 

I came in prepared to square off with opponents of the legislation, primarily big trade associations like the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the American Forest and Paper Association, the Toy Industry Association, the American Institute for Packaging and the Environment and others. 

But with the exception of the paper industry, none of the other big opponents showed up to testify.  There were only three or four opponents in total, and several of them were from niche industries looking to exempt their products (this always happens in bill hearings).  I was flabbergasted.  In over a decade of working on environmental policy, I have never seen a hearing on a controversial bill where the primary trade associations involved didn’t show up.

However, they all knew about the hearing because they submitted written testimony.  They also showed up in force to deliver testimony in opposition to EPR before the Rhode Island Senate Packaging Commission.  In my mind, this means their primary strategy is to work behind the scenes to try and kill the bill with legislative leadership.  An issue of such magnitude and public importance should be debated in public. Private lobbying and donations to political leaders undermines democracy and keeps the public in the dark about the dirtier side of our consumer society.

In the end, I think these powerful actors are in for a rude awakening.  EPR for packaging has legs.  There is a growing constituency of support across environmental and industry sectors and a growing understanding that we need new policies to address the widespread wasting of resources – natural, financial and human – from the unsustainable design and use of packaging.   

It’s only a matter of time before producers become responsible for packaging waste in the United States.

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