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Extended Producer Responsibility is Key to Reducing Packaging Waste and Pollution

Photo: Courtesy of Vivianne Lemay

If we look at the plastics industry, we see a linear economy — we extract raw materials, turn them into products or packaging, and they eventually get thrown away.


Ashima Sukhdev

North American Programs Lead, Ellen MacArthur Foundation

For the vast majority of plastics, it’s a one-way journey to landfills, incinerators, or to polluting the environment. Only 14 percent of plastic packaging gets collected for recycling, while around a third ends up in the environment.

This “take, make, waste” linear economy is not only found in the plastics sector, but across the economy. It relies on creating value by depleting finite resources, and it therefore cannot work in the long term. It is fueling the greatest global challenges facing us today, including the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss.

The circular economy, by contrast, eliminates the idea of waste. Driven by design, it eliminates waste and pollution, keeps products and materials in use, and regenerates natural systems. It gives us the option to increase prosperity and create jobs while reducing greenhouse gas emissions, waste, and pollution.

To solve the very acute problem of plastic packaging waste and pollution means rethinking products, packaging, and business models in order to eliminate packaging where it’s not needed. We need to keep the materials in use where they are. Where packaging cannot be eliminated and reusable or refillable packaging is not an option, we need to recycle the materials to keep them in the economy and out of the environment.

The trouble is, collecting, sorting, and recycling packaging costs more than the amount recyclers get paid for recycled materials — there is a net cost. In order to attract investment and meaningfully scale recycling as a viable solution, that cost needs to be covered so the process becomes profitable.

Creating responsibility

The only proven way to generate dedicated, ongoing, and sufficient funding to cover this cost is through programs where the companies putting packaged products on the market remain responsible for packaging after its use and are required to pay for its collection, sorting, and recycling. Such programs are called extended producer responsibility (EPR).

This is a well-known and proven policy tool. It is already in place in many countries around the world, including Japan, South Korea, and most EU member states. It has been proven to drive up recycling rates and could deliver a host of other benefits — for example, reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, incentives for companies to design more easily recyclable packaging, and the creation of local jobs.

Working together

The need for packaging EPR in the United States is increasingly widely recognized. There are upwards of ten EPR bills in play across the United States. Meanwhile, the U.S. Plastics Pact, which brings together more than 95 organizations — including government entities, non-governmental organizations, research institutions, and businesses — highlighted EPR in their roadmap as being instrumental to realizing their targets. These include 50 percent of plastic packaging being recycled or composted by 2025 and increased use of recycled materials in packaging.

The need for EPR programs for packaging is also being recognized globally. In June, mobilized by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, more than 150 leading businesses, NGOs, and other stakeholders from across the value chain signed a statement calling for extended producer responsibility for packaging, including more than 100 businesses. They all recognized that without EPR, packaging collection and recycling is unlikely to be meaningfully scaled, and tens of millions of tons of packaging will continue to end up in the environment every year.

We hope many governments will seize this opportunity and kickstart or accelerate a dialogue leading to the implementation of well-designed EPR policies for packaging all around the world. We call on all companies to follow the lead of those who signed the statement and constructively work with governments and other stakeholders towards this. Only with EPR will we make packaging recycling work — a key part of a circular economy for plastics.

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