We Americans generated 250 million tons of trash last year, nearly half of it consumer packaging. Only about a third was recycled. More of it could be, and would be if the concept of extended producer responsibility (EPR) became standard in this country.
With EPR, companies are responsible for collecting and recycling the packaging they create. There are laws requiring it in European nations such as Germany and Denmark, as well as Japan and parts of Canada. All have significantly higher recycling rates than the United States for everything from beverage containers to paper products and packaging to aluminum cans and plastic.
EPR is not totally alien to the United States. Beverage container deposit laws are a form of it, making the industry responsible for taking back the containers and giving consumers an incentive to return them through deposits. Producers of batteries, fluorescent lighting, paint and, now, electronics, are also responsible for collecting and recycling them.
But most of the recyclable material, valued at more than $11 billion, is still thrown away in this country each year. That’s not only a big waste of money, it’s bad for the environment, both in terms of leaky landfills and the need to mine or harvest new raw materials and process them to produce more packaging.
Currently it's up to taxpayers, many of them in severely strapped cities, to fund recycling programs. It would be fairer and more efficient to make the companies that produced and profited from the materials handle their collection and recycling, or at least share the cost. That includes newspapers, although their contribution should be limited because they have a high recycling rate (72 percent) and use a lot of recycled content.
The As You Sow foundation has been pushing for extended producer responsibility with a shareholder campaign. Beverage companies Coca-Cola and Nestle Waters North America have signed on, but so far, big grocery companies like Kraft and Procter & Gamble have not. Sooner or later, the states will have to make it mandatory.