Extended producer responsibility (EPR), or product stewardship, has influential advocates and substantial momentum in the United States. And it has the potential to dramatically affect the waste stream and our businesses. It’s time for the solid waste industry to assume some leadership on this or lose business.
What is EPR? EPR laws are designed to hold manufacturers, instead of local governments, responsible for the cost and effort of managing their products when those products reach the end of their useful lives. This means that less waste will be placed at the curb for haulers to take.
As of May 2011, 32 states had a total of nearly 70 EPR laws in effect, according to the Product Stewardship Institute. At least 17 states have introduced additional EPR legislation in 2011. California leads the way with EPR laws covering seven product categories, and San Francisco recently introduced the nation’s first pharmaceutical EPR law.
The U.S. Conference of Mayors has adopted a resolution calling on Congress to establish national EPR legislation. Meanwhile, two states have passed — and four states are considering — EPR framework legislation, which allows state agencies to bypass the legislative process to promulgate EPR rules within the framework. The European Union has fully embraced EPR concepts for many years, and EPR programs are operating in every Canadian province and territory. As a result, U.S. advocates have lots of models and history to support their efforts. Importantly, our industry can learn from EPR efforts in Europe, Canada, and in states with existing legislation.
What Does It Mean for Us?
Do you remember the angst in the solid waste industry that greeted early recycling initiatives? Now, recycling is a core business for us. Like recycling in its infancy, EPR presents our industry with tremendous opportunity and considerable risk.
The opportunity is to get paid for what our industry does best: dealing with end-of-life issues. Who better than us to carry away the discards that many manufacturers and importers are now responsible for handling? We have the infrastructure and personnel to do this. Excluding postal workers, our personnel touch American households and businesses more frequently than workers in any other industry. We are there, with the right equipment. We can take it back (and get paid for it).
“Be at the table or be on the menu” is the applicable adage here. The risk is that we stand to lose business: manufacturers can establish take-back centers and then deal directly with buyers of recyclables, bypassing the haulers. Some — such as Best Buy – already have.
Our industry needs to be a part of the process to influence EPR program scope, design and finances so that we have a role to play when products covered by EPR laws reach the end of their lives. Policymakers, however well intentioned, are famously unaware of the effects of their rulemaking; they need our help. With the experience and sound practices developed by our industry in handling discards, and the recycling challenges that our industry has overcome, we are tremendously well suited to help guide the development of EPR.
There is also substantial risk that a wide variety of varying municipal, county, state and federal programs could be piecemealed into the field. If EPR is adopted on a city-by-city or a county-by-county basis, compliance logistics will be unnecessarily complex. British Columbia has identified varying municipal ordinances as a major obstacle to the effective enforcement of EPR rules and regulations.
We need to be talking about EPR issues wherever garbage men gather. Let’s understand the successes and failures of EPR in Europe and Canada. Our industry needs to start getting EPR information circulated widely within our companies, and begin to understand the nuances and drivers of EPR policies. Let’s claim the “end-of-life” space for our industry. Our trucks and personnel will handle this challenge, for a fair price.
Ron McCracken is a principal at Greenville, S.C.-based RJM Associates, a consulting and relationship development firm focused on the waste industry. He is a member of the Environmental Industry Associations’ Hall of Fame.