Melissa Harris-Perry: You're listening to The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, and we've all been taught the three Rs from a very young age. In fact, most of our conversations about recycling focus on the responsibility of us as individuals. It's one small thing each of us can do to push back against the effects of climate change. Did you know that in most places, it's individuals that also foot the bill for recycling? That's right. Taxpayers like you and me make recycling programs in the US possible. That will no longer be the case in Maine, which recently became the first state to require companies that create consumer packaging to cover the costs of recycling it too.
Sarah Nichols: We are the first domino in the United States to fall on this type of policy, but we're just falling in line with the rest of the world. My name is Sarah Nichols, and I'm the sustainable Maine director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine.
Melissa Harris-Perry: For environment advocates like Sarah, the new law, which establishes something called an extended producer responsibility program is a really big deal.
Sarah Nichols: This is signaling to companies that are polluting our environment that they have a bigger role to play than what they're doing now. We're changing the narrative from what they're trying to send as personal responsibility and individuals making better choices when they know and we all know that it's actually these corporations and companies who have the majority of the power.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Maine was the first state to pass this kind of bill, but Oregon quickly followed with its own version, and several other states are currently considering similar legislation. For more on this, we turned to Winston Choi-Schagrin, a reporter for the New York Times, covering climate change and the environment.
Winston Choi-Schagrin: The Maine law, which was signed in July, and the Oregon law signed in August are known by this jargony term, extended producer responsibility, or EPR for short. Essentially, they mandate that manufacturers pay for the cost of recycling their goods. In this case, it's the cost to recycle their packaging. Manufacturers who sell almost any product, from toothbrushes and toiletries to snack items, are going to be charged a fee for the cost of recycling the packaging of their items.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Tell us a bit about what that actually means in practice. How can they be held responsible in this way, and particularly in just one state, if they're packaging things and selling them throughout the country?
Winston Choi-Schagrin: They're going to be charged a fee based on the weight of the items they sell. The fees haven't been set, but they're based on a number of factors, including how recyclable the product is and whether it includes toxic materials such as PFAS. They'll be charged a higher fee for items that are more difficult to recycle and they'll be charged a relative fee I should say, for items that are easier to recycle or have a more viable recycling market. Things like paper and cardboard have a really strong end-market already. I think one of the key points here is how companies are going to be thinking about design and it's going to require a shift in mindset.
If design has typically been about branding or marketing, companies are going to be incentivized to think about whether their products are designed in a way that makes it easier to recycle. I spoke to one recycling advocate actually who worked in waste policy for the State of Massachusetts in the '90s. He described the impact of one dairy company's decision to change from a clear plastic bottle to an opaque plastic bottle. The clear plastic bottle had a higher value on the recycling market than the opaque bottle. It caused this cascade of effects, including the fact that the recycling costs for the new opaque material increased across the state.
I think it highlights the fact that producers have their own reasons for choosing the products that they do for their packaging, but they haven't really considered the cost of the material at the end of its life. The idea is that companies may only be charged a fee in one state, but they might be starting to think about the design across all of their products.
Melissa Harris-Perry: This feels like such an exciting development, in part because I am now officially old enough to remember that there was a moment when recycling was pushed as the only thing that we could do about global climate change, everybody should just recycle, to another period in this process of coming to understand human responsibility for climate change where recycling has been almost mocked like, "Oh, why even bother with recycling given the size and scope of the challenges that we are facing?"
This is, it feels to me like bringing together that structural piece of recycling and not making it just about an individual consumer issue, but really about all of our products, how they get to us, and what they're made of.
Winston Choi-Schagrin: Some environmental advocates described this law as transformative. I think the main reason is just that the recycling industry has been in such a state of crisis. Recycling, as you say, has been mocked. It had become truly unsustainable because the costs of collecting and sorting and processing recyclable materials was just so high. It was previously the responsibility of normal people, the municipal governments. Now it's going to be the responsibility of manufacturers who are putting the items on the market in the first place.
That is really significant and it's very different from what's happening today. The cost of picking up your recycling bin when you take it out every week, it's born by you the taxpayer, whether it's through a direct feature waste holler, or through your taxes.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Globally, is this extended producer responsibility an approach to recycling that we're going to see?
Winston Choi-Schagrin: EPR, or extended producer responsibility, already exists in a number of countries, including nearly all of the EU member states, Japan, South Korea, and a number of Canadian provinces. It does exist in this form in terms of covering packaging across a whole range of countries. It does exist in more limited forms and even more countries, including countries in South America and Africa. Actually, EPR already exists in a very limited way across 33 states in the United States. EPR has a really strong track record I would say of working.
I should back up and say that when I say it exists in a limited form in the United States, they apply to only a really small number of specific products like carpets, mattresses, paint that account for a tiny percentage of our waste stream. By contrast, this Maine law and the Oregon law, which covers packaging, is going to cover an estimated 30% to 40% of what people throw away.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We've talked a little bit about how they might help to benefit the earth, which really matters. How does it also benefit those people who live on the earth in Maine? The residents, what difference does it make for consumers and for municipal governments?
Winston Choi-Schagrin: It's going to make a really big difference for municipal governments and I would say for people living in Maine because they're the people paying for the municipal government's recycling programs. I mentioned before that recycling has just become extremely expensive for municipal governments. It involves the cost of collecting recycling bins, transporting them, sorting, finding an end market that they can sell recyclables to. One environmental advocate in Maine described this new EPR bill as the difference between having a recycling program and not.
Without the EPR bill, they felt that recycling just wasn't going to be viable in the state. I just want to back up and explain the context in which these laws are happening. I think in order to understand why this is such a big deal, we need to understand the way our recycling system has been working. It's important to note that recycling is not just this altruistic feel-good government project, it's really a commodities market. The viability of the products depends on the availability of the market. In 2017, China announced it was going to be closing its doors to most recycling imports.
It decimated the recycling market in the United States and much of the world. Before that point, the US had been exporting around 70% of its plastics to China and it had a startling effect across the country. Philadelphia, for instance, saw its recycling costs increase from $5 a ton to $106 a ton, which is a really significant jump. In Maine, the Department of Environmental Protection estimated that it became about 67% more expensive to recycle than it was to landfill or incinerate. Municipal governments had to make really tough decisions.
Some smaller governments stopped picking up their recycling altogether, or they started sending recycling to landfills or incinerators. I think that that speaks to how tough it's been for municipal governments to keep their recycling programs afloat.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Given all of these positives, where is the opposition to this coming from? Because not everyone supports these laws.
Winston Choi-Schagrin: The industry in lobbying on the Maine bill felt that they didn't have enough of a voice. They wanted funds to be managed by industry. Another key source of criticism was that it would make your grocery bills go up. Oregon actually carried out a study of Canadian provinces that had EPR against those that didn't which refuted that grocery prices would be going up. That's really been where most of the source of most of the criticism. I should add that a lot of companies have actually come around.
Just to give manufacturers credit, there was a document leaked from Coca-Cola Europe, which depicted EPR as a policy that the company was going to fight against in 2016, but Coca-Cola has since come around to say that they would support EPR policies. A number of major corporations have also signed pledges saying that they would support EPR policies in statehouses. I think that that speaks to the fact that everyone is aware that recycling is not working. Municipal governments are aware of that. As you say, people have been mocking it. Consumers are aware of that and corporations are increasingly aware of and willing to deal with that.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Winston Choi-Schagrin is a reporter for the New York Times covering climate change in the environment. Winston, thank you for joining The Takeaway.
Winston Choi-Schagrin: Thank you so much for having me on.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.