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Report Outlines Strategies, Policy Options for U.S. Recycling Programs

Producer Responsibility: Does That Mean Free Recycling?

The phrase producer responsibility usually implies that producers must design their products and packages for recycling and pay for it, too. But is that realistic?

What do you want from a package? Do you want it to be recyclable? Should it have recycled content and the more the better? Or are you more interested in the environmental footprint of the package? Do you want it to create fewer greenhouse gas emissions, from the extraction of its raw materials through its final end? For that matter, do other factors play a bigger part when you buy a product and its package?

I raise these questions because we hear a lot these days about producer responsibility. In our waste and recycling world, the phrase usually implies that producers need to design their products and packages for recycling and pay for it, too. Both concepts sound great. Free recycling and recyclable packaging. What a great deal!

Price is my first criteria when I am shopping. Most consumers would probably agree. We may tell pollsters that we look for the recycling label and buy green whenever possible. But I haven’t seen data that shows we put the green environment ahead of the green in our wallet. This is normal. It is quicker, easier and more important for most of us to check the price first than to check for the recycling label.

Price is not my only criteria. I want a package that protects the product from harm. I am less likely to buy a product in a package that I know from personal experience has failed before I could enjoy the purchase. If, for instance, a food purchase didn’t survive the trip from the manufacturer or the farmer to the store and then to my home, all I have is more food waste.

Beyond price and product security, recycling is important to me. I want to be able to put the package in my recycling bin and then have it processed into a raw material for a manufacturer. I want it to have as much recycled content as possible.

Recycling, however, is not my ultimate environmental choice. I want the package to be designed for the environment. For me, lowering greenhouse gas emissions are more important than recycling and recycled content. This is where science gets interesting. Recyclability is an important environmental attribute of a package. Nonetheless, some non-recyclable packages have a lower overall environmental impact than their recyclable competitors made of different materials.

As for recycled content, between packages made of the same material, recycled content usually lowers the overall environmental impact. That positive result does not necessarily apply to packages made of different materials. In that case, the material type and the amount used are more important. Check out the lifecycle analysis research by the state of Oregon’s Materials Management program to learn more about this fascinating conundrum. 

As for free recycling, of course, it would be nice if producers would pay for recycling. Then it would be free. Or would it? I suspect that most producers would just pass the cost along to us. We’d pay for it, and they likely wouldn’t bother to tell us.

I have one more thing I look for in a package. I have arthritis in my right index finger. I want to buy a package that I know is easy to open and use. Sometimes, it’s the impact on my right index finger that I care about the most.

Chaz Miller is a longtime veteran of the waste and recycling industry. He can be reached at chazmiller9@gmail.com.

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