Americans may produce more municipal waste per capita than any other country in the world, but improving our recycling rate is one major way we can turn the tide and become a more sustainable society. According to a new report released by As You Sow (AYS), an environmental and social responsibility-focused advocacy group, a significant source of the problem lies in our failure to recycle packaging made from recyclable materials.
The US recovers less than half of the packaging otherwise primed for recycling, and although Americans have made impressive strides in recycling paper products, less than a quarter of the remaining packaging materials that are discarded are ultimately recycled. Other developed countries, such as Denmark, Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands, have achieved packaging recycling rates that far exceed that of the US (84%, 78%, 73%, and 72%, respectively).
AYS estimates that the total value of packaging materials needlessly wasting away in US landfills in 2010 amounted to over $11 billion. According to Conrad Mackerron, author of the report and Senior Director of AYS, companies have been reluctant to take it upon themselves to deal with the issue mainly because of concerns about the cost and time involved in addressing the problem sufficiently. Given that companies have been slow to move on this issue, how can America recapture the value currently buried in garbage dumps?
The solution lies in implementing Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) laws and policies, or Product Stewardship. EPR policies shift the burden of paying for the collection and recycling of used packaging materials from the taxpayers normally stuck with the bill to the companies responsible for making the packaging in the first place. Today, more than 47 countries around the world have enacted EPR programs in one form or another. In the United States, there are EPR laws already on the books in 32 states, but none of them specifically regulate the disposal and processing of packaging materials.
By expanding the purview of EPR laws and policies to include packaging, businesses will be required to internalize the cost of recycling the very packaging materials they themselves produce, presenting a compelling reason to re-design packaging in order to minimize the use of materials and reduce production costs. In addition, according to the report, the expansion of EPR laws could lead to other notable economic, environmental, and social benefits, including: “profits in processing used materials, reductions in carbon emissions and energy used to produce packaging, and thousands of new ‘green’ jobs in collecting and processing.” With all these benefits in place, conditions are ripe to help bring up America’s lagging recycling rates.
Images: As You Sow, Wikimedia Commons