End Plastics

Extended Producer Responsibility: A Solution or A Checked Box?

Plastic pollution poses a critical threat to humans, animals, and the planet. Does the  responsibility for tackling plastic waste management fall on the shoulders of governments? Businesses? Or are we – consumers of plastic products – supposed to ensure our waste can’t wreak havoc on the environment? The solution is more complex than that. 

What is Extended Producer Responsibility?

Extended producer responsibility, aka EPR, shifts the burden away from the consumer and onto producers for proper disposal of plastic waste.  For example, if you, the consumer, use a plastic-bottle and throw it away, under EPR, the producer would be responsible for managing the plastic waste and preventing further pollution into the environment. Businesses that use, handle, import or generate plastic packaging are affected by EPR legislation. 

Arguments for Extended Producer Responsibility

Despite recycling bins and instructions, consumers often fail to dispose of their plastic waste properly. EPR bypasses the problem of consumers’ inadequate plastic disposal by shifting responsibility onto businesses for managing plastic waste: under EPR producers are required to take plastics back and ensure they are recycled without polluting the environment.

An example of potential EPR legislation is the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, introduced to the House of Representatives in 2020. This bill aimed to make producers of products – single-use packaging and beverage containers – fiscally responsible for collecting, managing, and recycling or composting them. 

Beyond responsibility for managing waste disposal, EPR legislation also provides businesses with incentives to incorporate environmental considerations, or “eco-design,” into product design and packaging. For example, the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act would increase the minimum percentage of recycled content that businesses must use in the design of beverage containers.

EPR ensures recycling programs are funded by product producers rather than public sources and essentially makes the “polluter pay.” The polluter-pays as EPR legislation introduces  bonuses and/or penalties for companies to eco-design their packaging and finance their collection, sorting and recycling.

Implementing EPR

In 2021, Maine became the first US state to enact an EPR bill for packaging, shortly followed by Oregon and Colorado. This trend of states enacting EPR legislation has prompted arguments that this could serve as a model for the US: the European Organization for Packaging and the Environment estimates producers in Europe pay €3.1 billion in responsibility fees each year.

However, there are many differences between the EU and US, making the implementation of EPR in the US more complicated. EU states have established national schemes in which producers are required to take plastics back at the end of their life cycle and bear responsibility for recycling or disposal. Comparatively, the individualistic political culture of the US – and the absence of existing federal producer responsibility laws – is a barrier for the establishment of similar national take-back mandates.

Despite the difficulties of implementing EPR in the US, legislation following this principle would help tackle plastic pollution. We must all take action in our everyday lives to ensure we have a positive impact on our environment. EARTHDAY.ORG’s Planet vs. Plastics campaign educates individuals about actions we can all take to manage our use of plastics. Join us and together we will protect our planet from the disastrous consequences of plastic pollution.