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Setting the Record Straight on EPR Policy

Blog Post By: Michael Washburn, Ph.D., Senior Policy Advisor 

I’m used to wearing many hats in the recycling policy space. Recycler. Constituent. Policy wonk. 

Let’s wear the third hat for a minute and focus on a policy that is making news. I’m referring to extended producer responsibility, or EPR. EPR requires companies that produce packaging to pay fees that will be used to fund local recycling operations. It puts the financial onus on the brands making the goods instead of leaving local recycling programs to foot the bill alone. With this model, company compliance fees provide a sustainable funding source for education on what and how to recycle and updated recycling infrastructure, in addition to incentivizing recyclable packaging design and content. 

Understandably, legislators have two big questions when they enter the conversation about EPR for packaging discussions: does EPR actually improve recycling, and does it increase costs for consumers? 

Let’s get into it.  

The Recycling Partnership has a new report “Increasing Recycling Rates with EPR Policy” that roundly answers whether EPR improves recycling. Since EPR has been prevalent in countries around the world for 20 years, it made sense to us to look beyond our borders for examples of what was happening. This report explored seven EPR for packaging programs worldwide and found impactful results; across the board the policy drove the collection and recycling of target materials. According to the research, in Belgium, top recycling rates in 2020 reached 95% despite a global recycling downturn and the policy drove recycling rates to over 75% in British Columbia, Belgium, Spain, South Korea, and the Netherlands. In all seven programs studied, recycling rates were nearly 10 percentage points higher than in any U.S. state examined.  

We can apply these learnings abroad, locally. Our report found that well-designed EPR policy in the U.S. has the potential to create jobs, deliver nearly universal recycling access so everyone can recycle wherever they live, and increase resident participation and improve recycling behavior to drive higher recycling rates, among other benefits. This data-driven study provides an in-depth look at EPR and what it will take to build a better recycling system. 

Now, I’m going to switch hats and wear the recycler and constituent ones. People want recycling to be easy, affordable, and to work well. That calls for a transparent, accountable, and well-run recycling system. That is what well-designed EPR policy provides. In a prior blog, The Recycling Partnership has debunked assertions about whether EPR significantly increases grocery bills. The cost of goods is determined by a variety of factors such as labor and transportation; the impact of EPR is tiny in comparison.  

So as the debates continue over policy in Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Washington, and ultimately more states, let’s get past the idea that EPR doesn’t work. Opponents anti-EPR arguments are akin to saying that climate change isn’t real because it snows in Washington, D.C. once in a while.  

There’s much more work to do, but there’s a good roadmap to progress. The Recycling Partnership is committed to advancing a circular economy and working toward a future where our planet is healthy, everyone can recycle as easily as throwing something away, packaging is designed for recyclability, and funding finally sustains a world class recycling system.