When you put a clean yogurt container in the recycling bin, where does it go? Most people believe their recyclables are being processed and turned into new products that can be recycled yet again. The reality is much darker, with trends in recycling actually going backwards in recent years.
Traditionally in the US, the recycling process works like this: municipalities provide recycling services to their residents through curbside pick-up or large drop-off sites, at the cost of the consumer. The local government then pays a hauling service to remove and process the material. Before 2018, a lot of that processing happened in China. This was never a perfect system; shipping waste across the Pacific Ocean created its own ecological footprint, and the recipients in China (often small mom-and-pop operations) had to contend with unwanted material that came in the bales of recyclables (i.e., contamination) that often got burned or dumped.
For these and other reasons, China enacted its “National Sword” policy, which halted shipments of recyclables from the U.S. and the rest of the world. As much as this action has disrupted America’s recycling stream in the short term, it actually allows us to fix a few key problems with our recycling process.
There are three main problems. The first is that because of contamination, the high costs of recycling, and shifting packaging types, our “blue bin” material has begun to go to the same place as our garbage: the landfill (or, worse, the environment). At the same time, producers have been increasing their use of nonrecyclable packaging, funneling more waste into communities.
The second problem is that people are paying more and more—while receiving fewer recycling services. Currently, local governments shift the costs of recycling management onto their residents. In the last few years, those recycling rates have gone up while recycling services have decreased. Many localities have significantly cut back on what they allow their residents to recycle. This cycle seems prone to perpetuate itself for the foreseeable future.
Finally, people can’t on getting the same recycling services, even within the same state. In cities like Seattle, consumers can recycle several types of plastic. However, in some rural communities, there may not be a way to collect the same recyclables—even common #1 and #2 plastics. These discrepancies can confuse consumers and lead to recycling contamination as well as more and more landfill waste.
Put together, these problems point to a solution that must:
We can solve these problems by enacting producer responsibility (more formally known as extended producer responsibility or EPR). This idea is that the companies making the products brought into our communities should be the ones responsible for taking them out. This is the way recycling is handled in most of Europe and Canada.
Under a producer responsibility program, producers foot the costs that go into recycling. Often, municipalities or service providers are then reimbursed for managing the waste. In some case, the producer responsibility organization runs the recycling program itself.
In countries with producer responsibility policies, recycling rates have skyrocketed. The recycled materials are also being turned into post-consumer products at a much higher number than before producer responsibility. Companies in these countries take responsibility for keeping waste out of the environment, and have incentives to make and deliver products with more eco-friendly packaging.
Enacting producer responsibility for packaging and paper products in Washington would be a real step in modernizing our recycling system. Not only would it make recycling real again, it would also make recycling availability more standardized across Washington, meaning you could recycle the same kinds of packaging anywhere in the state. It also would keep costs down, meaning more savings for you!
Many products already are already managed by a producer responsibility program in Washington. Companies that make medicine, paint or computers, car for instance, pay for programs to take back their used products and recycle them in safe and effective ways.
Many products already are subject to an EPR process in Washington. Companies that make paint or computers, for instance, take back their used products to recycle them in safe and effective ways. Thirty-two other states, as well as D.C., do something similar, though not always for the same products and in the same ways.
However, in 2021, EPR laws for packaging passed for the first time in Maine and Oregon. While the two laws have some differences, they share a common goal of modernizing the way plastic packaging is handled in each state. We want to see Washington become the third state to enact this kind of EPR law, kickstarting a new era in waste management in the Evergreen State.