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Extended Producer Responsibility Could Help Save $11 Billion in Recyclable Material

American business should stop throwing away billions of dollars of valuable recyclable packaging materials, according to a new report by advocacy group As You Sow.

Unfinished Business: The Case for Extended Producer Responsibility for Post-Consumer Packaging highlights how the United States' lagging packaging recycling rates result in serious market inefficiencies and unnecessary strain on the economy and environment. Packaging comprises over 40 percent of the U.S. solid waste stream, greater than any other category, and most of the materials are recyclable. Findings in the report include an estimate that the value of wasted recyclable consumer packaging materials exceeded $11 billion in 2010.

The report also details how shifting financial responsibility from taxpayers to producers through a policy known as "extended producer responsibility" (EPR) can lead to profits in processing used materials, reductions in carbon emissions and energy used to produce packaging, and thousands of new green jobs in collection and processing.

"Americans throw away more materials than any other country," said Conrad MacKerron, Senior Program Director at As You Sow and author of the report. "This used to be a sign of economic progress, but in an age of declining natural resources, such waste is now an indicator of inefficient use of valuable raw materials and market failure. It's simply not good business to throw away billions of dollars of reusable resources."

At least 47 countries require producers to bear some or all of the cost of end-of-life packaging management, which in the U.S. has always been paid for by taxpayers. The report profiles successful implementations of EPR for packaging in Europe and Canada, and in the U.S. for product categories including batteries, paint, pesticide containers, and electronics - but not packaging.

The report outlines why companies should take responsibility for post-consumer packaging as part of their ongoing sustainability policies. Indeed, packaging represents the next great opportunity for producer responsibility because raw materials, such as the petroleum, minerals, and fiber used to make much consumer packaging, are projected to become increasingly scarce.

The report also finds that efficiently designed and administered EPR laws would resolve many of the concerns identified with packaging recycling by:

  • Increasing recovery rates for all post-consumer packaging
  • Incentivizing producers to reduce materials use and improve recyclability
  • Creating profitable secondary materials markets
  • Providing stable revenue sources through producer fees to improve curbside recycling systems and build new recycling infrastructure
  • Reducing greenhouse gases
  • Meeting pent-up industry demand for recyclable materials

In the last two years, momentum has been building for introduction of EPR mandates for packaging in the U.S. as state officials and producer responsibility groups are calling on companies to be accountable for their packaging. Working with a group of aligned shareholders, As You Sow has led engagement of major consumer goods and grocery companies, including Colgate-Palmolive, General Mills, Kraft Foods, Safeway, Supervalu, Target, Kroger, Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Walmart, Whole Foods, Coca-Cola and Nestlé Waters, to adopt EPR policies

According to the report, a successful mandated packaging EPR program in the U.S. should address all packaging types, be financed and managed by producers, drive source reduction, require participation by all businesses that produce packaging waste, and phase out use of non-recyclable packaging. By supporting EPR laws and policies that drive more aggressive and effective collection efforts, companies can then make commitments to use far higher levels of recycled content in product packaging, which, in turn, supports a circular system ensuring a stable supply of post-consumer materials to use as new feedstock.

"State-of-the-art mining of our post-consumer packaging 'trash' is a crucial step to propel us towards sustainable production and consumption policies that will ease the stress on our planet's limited natural resources," said MacKerron. "It's good business sense and basic common sense."

Bart King is a PR/marketing communications consultant and principal at Cleantech Communications. 

Bart King is the principal of New Growth Communications, a network of affiliated content producers and strategists serving clients in the emerging green economy. He is also Associate Editor of Sponsored Content for Sustainable Brands. Follow him @bart_king [Read more about Bart King]

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