It's time to pay the piper

Friday, April 27, 2012

There is a growing movement in the United States to force companies that make packaging and products - from soda bottles to printer cartridges to electronics and mattresses - to pay for the cost of collecting and recycling the waste they create.

This idea is known as Extended Producer Responsibility, or EPR, and it has already resulted in significant waste reduction and increased recycling across much of Europe as companies have complied by instituting take-back provisions and less-wasteful packaging designs.

The closest the U.S. has come to such measures is in the 10 states (including Iowa) that have enacted bottle bills, keeping excess plastic out of landfills by making companies pay for the collection and recycling of bottles.

Beyond bottles, some 32 states have now product-specific EPR laws that make manufacturers liable for the cost of recycling TVs and other electronics at the end of their useful lives. Fifteen state laws cover the safe disposal of mercury-containing automobile switches, nine cover the handling of lead-acid batteries and nine address mercury thermostats.

But despite the momentum at state and local levels, EPR is still far from becoming a federal mandate in the U.S. as it is in Europe and elsewhere. As it gains strength locally, however, it will become a force to be reckoned with, enjoying the same kind of widespread public support that recycling has across the country.

Three quarters of what the U.S. throws into landfills today is products and packaging. A lot of it was designed for one-time use, and much of it is toxic.

The current system imposes few penalties on manufacturers that put their beverages in one-way, non-refillable containers or swath their goods in excess packaging.

Even as EPR moves forward in the U.S., industries that would prefer not to pay for the waste their products generate are hoping to use it to undermine existing laws. Beverage makers in particular are embracing EPR as a work-around in the states that still have bottle bills.

Their new tactic is to publicly embrace recycling, mainly by distributing free bins. The industry likes such one-time payments, not the costly ongoing commitment represented by bottle bills.

The bottle bill has served Iowa well for many years and lengthened the life span of countless landfills. EPR may hike the price of products, but consumer awareness and supply and demand should, hopefully, balance the ledger.

It's time. Our planet says it's time.