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Legislative Mandates to Shift Responsibility for End-of-Life Product Disposal

Legislators from nine states announced on February 1 that they would work together to introduce Extended Product Responsibility (EPR) packaging bills in their states (or similar legislation). EPR shifts responsibility for end-of-life product disposal from municipalities and consumers to manufacturers and brand owners. It alters economic incentives by legislative mandate to motivate industry financially to minimize (or ideally design) waste out of the system. It is seen as a tool in the pursuit of a circular economy where waste is eliminated, and resources reused.

First introduced in Sweden over twenty years ago, EPR programs to recycle and recover used packaging are now well-established in the EU and Canada. There are over one hundred EPR laws in the U.S. for products like paint, tires and electronics, which are particularly difficult for consumers to recycle. There have not yet, however, been packaging EPRs.

While state legislators from California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maryland, New Hampshire, New York, Oregon, Vermont and Washington are working together, their bills are different. Hawaii’s, for example, requires beverage manufacturers to meet minimum postconsumer recycled plastic content of 15% by 2025, 25% by 2030 and 50% by 2031. Maryland requires all single-use packaging and products to be at least 75% postconsumer content by 2027. Without uniformity, compliance can be difficult and costly, and progress uneven. A manufacturer, brand or retailer in one state may face higher compliance costs than a competitor across the state line. National companies could be subject to a patchwork of requirements, much like previous state sponsored efforts to regulate GMOs.

It may be difficult to strike an acceptable balance between the interests of and impact on government and policymakers, industry, retailers, consumers and environmental advocates. Product pricing could begin reflecting a “true cost” (including redesign, reuse, recycling, composting, and disposal) but keeping products affordable could therefore be challenging. Communication between state legislators and among stakeholders is vital.

The hope is that effects of EPR programs will go beyond waste management and encourage businesses to design out waste, holding prices in check by keeping products and materials in use. This is already happening in some of our business sectors even without EPR programs. Health and nutrition businesses working with Informa Markets are using innovative packaging with its end in mind – recyclable, compostable, and even edible. Informa has its own commitments as well: carbon neutral as a business by 2025, halving the waste generated by its products and events by 2025, becoming zero waste and net zero carbon by 2030 or earlier and, wherever it can, actively helping its partners, customers and wider markets achieve the same.

One of the ways Informa tries to help is by highlighting packaging innovation at Natural Product Expo and SupplySide events and through our NEXTY Awards. We offer tools like our Sustainable Packaging Kit to guide businesses as they formulate products, regulatory consulting with MarketReady Insights to help businesses make the ecological claims necessary to educate consumers about these investments, and events and conferences where businesses developing products for circular economies learn and lead.

These efforts toward EPRs are early and far from certain. But, regardless, it looks like 2021 may bring significant development in managing the life cycle and waste management of consumer products. Each of us is a stakeholder for these issues – make your voice heard.