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Ask Eartha: Finding a solution for plastic pollution

Lisa Evans
Ask Eartha
Recycled plastic at the Summit County Landfill Nov. 15, 2017, in Dillon. Extended producer responsibility policies could provide a solution for greater plastic recycling.
Photo by Hugh Carey / Summit Daily News archive

Dear Eartha, It seems impossible to buy products that aren’t covered in plastic packaging. It’s so frustrating because most of it is not recyclable. Is there a way out of this mess?

Yes, plastic is everywhere. And it’s getting worse. As renewable energy gains momentum — decreasing the demand for fuel — the oil and gas industry is shifting its attention to plastic production. The International Energy Agency reports that petrochemicals, used to make plastic, will account for over a third of the growth in oil demand by 2030 and nearly half by 2050. So how do we recycling lovers make sure we don’t drown in extra plastic? Advocate for extended producer responsibility.

Introducing extended producer responsibility

Extended Producer Responsibility is a policy tool that mandates producers to take responsibility for disposal of their products. A classic example of the policy is paint. Previously, the high cost of disposing unused oil-based paint, a hazardous waste, deterred people from recycling it. Even if folks wanted to recycle their paint, there weren’t a lot of places that would accept it. Many states, including Colorado, started extended producer responsibility programs that mandated paint producers like Sherwin-Williams collect and process unused paint. Across the U.S., there are already 115 producer responsibility policies in 33 states, and many of these programs include other hard-to-recycle items like electronics and pharmaceuticals.



Implementing an extended producer responsibility program generally follows these steps:

  1. A state government adopts an extended producer responsibility policy for a specific material, like paint, then sets the goals for the recycling rates of that product.
  2. The companies who produce the product are then required to create a plan for collecting and processing the materials and educating consumers.
  3. Usually, the costs for running a program are embedded in the product. For example, since 2015, buying paint in Colorado includes a $0.75 per gallon fee. Fees go to a producer-run organization that funds the proper disposal of unused paint.

Extended producer responsibility policies are a blueprint, not a one-size-fits-all deal. But the success with the programs shows that the concept has the potential to reform our recycling systems, especially when it comes to plastic packaging. Need more proof? It already works in Canada, Europe and, now, Maine.



Producer responsibility for packaging

Since 2011, British Columbia has used extended producer responsibility to make suppliers of packaging and printed paper responsible for collecting and recycling their products. In 2020 alone, over 203,000 metric tons of plastic packaging and paper products were collected via Recycle BC’s program. The result? On average, 85% of the province’s plastic and paper products are kept out of the landfill. That’s a big deal considering the U.S. only recycles 68% of paper products and — far worse — 9% of plastics. With the same population as Colorado, British Columbia has implemented a total of 20 extended producer responsibility programs, resulting in 99% of households having access to recycling services.

Last month, Maine became the first U.S. state to pass a producer responsibility law for packaging. Maine’s program charges producers a fee based on how many tons of packaging they put into the market. Those fees will be paid into a producer responsibility organization, which will reimburse municipal governments for their recycling operations.

Studies have shown that Maine’s fee will be negligible to consumers once implemented. Lawmakers hope the program drives greater uniformity in recycling guidelines, giving more clarity to which plastics can be recycled across the state. And, since the policy charges producers by tonnage, lawmakers are also incentivizing greener packaging design.

As for Colorado, last year, the state Legislature passed SB 20-055, known as the Incentivize Development Recycling End Markets bill. This bill required the Colorado Department of Health and Environment to conduct a study on producer responsibility programs throughout the U.S. and create recommendations for Colorado based on the findings. The outcome? Colorado is set to draft the legislation to introduce extended producer responsibility for packaging as soon as January 2022.

Given the number of Summit County residents frustrated about plastic packaging — me too! — the potential for an extended producer responsibility policy for packaging is exciting. So, while we wait for the policy to go to legislation, what can you do in the meantime? Help spread the word about producer responsibility in Colorado and look out for the draft bill this fall. This could be our chance to influence a very important policy that could dramatically reduce the amount of plastic waste in our state. Perhaps someday soon our berry containers will be recyclable. Don’t forget that, for now, they’re still trash.

Lisa Evans

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