Driving the Circular Economy with Extended Producer Responsibility

Extended Producer Responsibility is a policy solution that will help keep plastics out of our environment and place the economic burden of negative externalities back on manufacturers.

While interning at a sustainability startup, I realized the true magnitude of our world’s plastic problem. I swore to minimize my plastic usage, but it was nearly impossible to cut down. We have a deep reliance on plastic products, from disposable cups to chips bags to soap bottles. We don’t see what happens before we purchase these plastic products and after we throw them away, but they cause much harm to the environment.

Upstream, polymers account for 6% of global fossil fuel consumption. Downstream, emissions vary based on end destination. While producers would have us believe that most plastic is recycled, this is not the case—especially in the U.S., where recycling makes up 9% of end destinations. The two other main futures for plastic are long-lasting waste in landfills (75%) and the environment (4%), which releases few emissions but has other significant environmental impacts, or incineration (12%), which solves the problem of landfill and ocean waste but produces carbon emissions and other air pollutants. Recycling is the only way to address both concerns simultaneously.

Corporations will not fix this linear and broken system without policies to push them. One of the most promising policy solutions is Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). This shifts the economic burden of plastic’s negative externalities to manufacturers, forcing them to pay for their products’ end-of-life. Currently, recycling is not economically viable—it is cheaper to produce virgin plastic than recycle. EPR would fix this by funding recycling.

This may sound daunting, but we know it can be done. EPR has existed for years across Europe, Canada, Australia, and South America. These programs are facilitated by producer responsibility organizations (PROs). One well-organized EPR scheme can be found in France, whose program is run by a PRO called CITEO. It gives bonuses for various factors, such as sorting instructions on packaging and using over 50% recycled plastic. It penalizes for factors like packaging containing mineral opacifiers or oils. Depending on how recyclable a company’s packaging is deemed to be, their price paid will increase or decrease. This way recycling expenses can be offset accordingly. It also deters companies from putting hard-to-recycle labels on their packaging and using materials that are expensive or ineffective to recycle.

Recently, Oregon and Maine passed EPR bills. However, they used weight-based schemes, which can result in higher costs for more easily recyclable packaging. With this fee structure, there is evidence that prices will be raised for consumers, which will hurt families on fixed incomes. In contrast, a study of Canadian EPR showed that the average consumer price increase was $0.0056 per item. The Maine EPR scheme also lacks reliance on a PRO, which is an essential aspect of EPR. This separates existing U.S. EPR laws from those in Canada and Europe, which include industry stakeholder collaboration.

Despite the downfalls of these EPR programs, they signal a new wave of EPR implementation in the U.S. There are already EPR bills in the states of New York, California, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, and Hawaii. A Congress bill, the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act, could bring EPR to every state. These incoming programs should draw more inspiration from other country’s well-developed models in order to capture the full potential of EPR.

When done right, EPR will result in decreased emissions for companies as they use less plastic per packaging unit and move away from harmful polymer types such as PVC. Large-scale EPR compliance would mean decreased costs of post-consumer recycled materials (PCR), which is critical to driving the circular economy. Creating plastic products using PCR instead of virgin plastics can create energy savings of up to 88%. EPR would also lower rates of plastic waste exports and mismanagement.

Consumers, companies, policymakers must embrace EPR in order to keep plastics in a closed loop and out of the environment.

This insight is a part of our Undergraduate Seminar Fellows’ Student Blog Series. Learn more about the Undergraduate Climate and Energy Seminar.

Emma Schultz

Undergraduate Seminar Fellow
Emma Schultz is a senior studying chemical and biomolecular engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science. Schultz is also a 2022 Undergraduate Student Fellow.