Since moving to England a few months ago, I’ve noticed the use of more stringent policies for the disposal of waste — be it cardboard, plastic, or other materials. Europe has been a pioneer in requiring companies to pay for recycling programs, which first took shape around 1990 in Sweden.
One of these programs, known as extended producer responsibility or EPR, basically requires companies to cover the costs of recycling programs. In Germany — where the recycling rate is among the highest in the world — waste sorting is serious business, and people can face fines for breaking the rules. As other countries see success with waste management legislation, EPR bills have emerged in recent years in legislatures across the United States, with Maine, Oregon, and Colorado as early adopters. While these new laws appear to be a step forward in reducing environmental impact, they face challenges from environmental advocates and others who say they fall short of what’s needed and actually are taking aim at the wrong issue.
Judith Enck is one of those who believes most current EPR bills aren’t enough. Instead, she wants to reduce the production and use of plastic packaging and founded an organization called Beyond Plastics to advocate for this systemic change. “I think we can do a whole lot better than getting money to pay for plastics recycling, which we’ve learned does virtually nothing to actually solve the plastic problem,” she told me. “The European Union has had an EPR for packaging directive in place for years. But when we talked with people in Europe, we realized that while it was good to get the funding for recycling, it didn’t do anything to actually help with plastic reduction, so to speak. Plastic reduction is where our focus needs to be; not just on recycling.
Through Beyond Plastics, Enck and others are working to ensure that EPR bills incorporate specific reduction requirements and standards for recycled content — steps to avoid what she calls “unsustainable waste disposal.” One of the biggest challenges for Beyond Plastics is communicating the issue and the solution, and shifting the burden from consumers to the companies that create the products. During our recent conversation, she shared what she and Beyond Plastics are doing to spread the word and advocate for long-term solutions.
Chris Marquis: Share a bit about the origins of Beyond Plastics and how it has evolved since it was founded in 2019. How does this project facilitate advocacy by environmental policy experts and college students to end plastic pollution?
Judith Enck: My organization, Beyond Plastics, is a small nationwide project; we only handle the continental United States. Our mission is to end plastic pollution through our deep policy and advocacy expertise. We help to draft, refine, fix, and pass effective legislation to reduce the amount of harmful plastic entering our environment. We noticed many bad Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) bills popping up all over the country. EPR has great potential but it is essential to get all the details right. What might be viewed as minor issues, could create long term ineffectiveness. What I’ve observed across the U.S. is various special interests representing petrochemical companies developing their own model EPR bills, and they’re taking advantage of legislators who often do not have a lot of policy depth — and it’s a pretty complicated issue.
I spent a huge amount of time this year trying to beat back a weak and ineffective EPR bill in New York (part of Gov. Kathy Hochul’s budget proposal). I have testified in other in Trenton, New Jersey. This hearing showed the whole gamut of companies and trade associaitons opposing EPR, as well as people supporting EPR. But if you follow this hearing at all, be sure to pay attention to the groups representing the packaging companies. They will say they support EPR but then work to make sure the legislation is super weak. Right now, I think the strongest EPR bill in the U.S. that has been introduced, but not adopted, is by Assemblyman Steve Englebright of New York.
Marquis: I would love to learn how you got into this. How do you work with so many different state legislators?
Enck: I served at the Environmental Protection Agency during the Obama administration, and when I left the EPA, I wanted to work on an issue that had a very significant environmental impact. I particularly wanted to focus on an issue that was doing damage in low income communites and communities of color, that needed more work. There were not a whole lot of people working on the policy end of these issues. There were many people working on climate change, which obvioualy is important, but I felt there was an unmet need in regards to plastics. So I started Beyond Plastics. The project is based in Bennington College in Bennington, Vermont, where I teach.
At first, we were not looking to work on EPR, but when I read an EPR bill in the New York State Senate in 2021, I was deeplyt concerned. . I thought, “Oh my gosh, if this bill passes, we are not going to see much — if any — of a reduction in plastics and other packaging in New York. In all likelihood, we’ll see even more plastics!” So that got me really focused on EPR proposals. I worked the most on this New York proposal because whatever happens in New York will have a major influence on other states. You probably know that Maine and Oregon have all adopted EPR laws — and now Colorado — but I think they’re all weak. They’re not going to work in driving down plastic pollution and the states will over time, see that they’re not effective. An entire decade will have been wasted, and we can’t afford something like that happening in a state like New York. So that’s kind of how I backed into it.
With any EPR, the definition of recycling is really important. Because if the definition allows for chemical recycling, then the way most companies and brands will comply with the law is by sending their material to chemical recycling facilities. Chemical recycling is not recycling. It’s basically gasification or pyrolisis it takes waste plastic, heats it at high temperature, and then creates a low-grade fossil fuel.That is not a solution.
Marquis: What is it about the EPR laws that have been adopted in states like Maine that will make them ineffective? How will the proposal you support differentiate from some of these weaker laws.
Enck: First off, I think one of the most important things to keep in mind is who is controlling the system. Most EPR bills, like the ones passed in Maine and Oregon, involve a version of a producer responsibility organization (PRO) model. This requires plastic producers to join a PRO and pay into its ongoing program. PROs are made up of big brands, small brands, and packaging companies. In reality, their goal is to pay as little as possible, which shouldn’t surprise anyone. When you give complete control to a PRO with limited oversight by overstretched state agencies, they’re not going to design the best system. They’re going to try to do the cheapest way possible.
Second, I think environmental standards for packaging is the key. Just like we have mandatory fuel-efficiency standards for cars, we need to adopt mandatory packaging standards. The problem with plastics is so significant that we shouldn’t leave it up to a PRO to decide how much recycling or how much reduction is needed. In fact, traditional EPR had basically one goal: to assess fees on packaging and then have that money flow to local governments to help pay for waste disposal. .
There are six pillars for EPR policies and programs to be effective: they must reduce packaging, eliminate toxins from packaging, expand or adopt bottle bills, prohibit the burning of plastic, enforce oversight and accountability, and relieve the taxpayer.
Marquis: So tell me more about this bill that you support.
Enck: The planet needs environmental standards for packaging. And the way we set it up is through a tremendous emphasis on plastic reduction. EPR policies should include strong, prioritized, and measurable requirements for producers to redesign, reduce, and reuse instead of continuing unsustainable waste disposal. Plastic recycling has proven to be a failure, so why should we set up a whole system to fund it? EPR policies should set clear goals in percentages for the availability of reusable options in the market, and provide financial and educational support for public alternative delivery systems and equitable accessibility. Reusable and refillable systems create jobs and those jobs should be based in low income communities. Most jobs in the US are created by small businesses. These small businesses should be supported.
The EPR bill we support in New York by Assemblyman Englebright, NY Assembly bill 10185 was introduced on May 5, 2022. It proposes a more comprehensive approach, including language to outline packaging design standards after reducing packaging by 50%; 90% of the remaining packaging must be either recyclable or made of post-consumer recycled content or compostable within 12 years.
Eco-modulation — which involves fees that incentivize more environmentally sustainable packaging — is part of the producer fee structure in this bill. That money would flow to local governments not only to fund recycling programs but also waste-reduction programs. For example, let’s say a school wants to get rid of single-use packaging they use every day in their school cafeteria. The children at this school are being served meals on polystyrene plates with plastic utensils and polystyrene cups, but the school wants to stop using these single-use plastics. So we say this school should be provided some money to install dishwashing equipment, which would significantly reduce waste. This is a restructure project that could be funded by eco-modulated fees.
The bill would also establish an EPR program for packaging, and a packaging responsibility fund. Producers would be required to change packaging designs to reduce waste, pay fees based on the amount of packaging material used, and be responsible for packaging waste disposal. Beyond Plastics promotes such packaging design standards, but we don’t hope that we’ll see design changes with these fees, as that hasn’t really worked in the past.
We also need require reduction in toxic substances in packaging, otherwise we are recycling — and reusing — toxic substances. The bill includes a section banning certain materials in packaging, including PFAs, heavy metals, polystyrene, and polycarbonate. We also feel it is important that we not allow chemical recycling to count as real recycling. The bill’s definition of recycling does not include energy recovery or energy generation, including combustion, pyrolysis, or gasification.
Finally, we support a separate bottle bill or container-deposit law. On May 5, 2022 Englebright also introduced a bottle bill that would expand New York’s container deposit law to include non-carbonated beverages, wine, and liquor. It is New York Assembly bill 10184. These trust old, original bottle bills are actually the best example of an EPR. If a state already has a bottle bill, let it keep going. But if a state doesn’t have a bottle bill, we suggest you make the case that it be folded into an EPR. The beauty of a bottle bill is the mandatory deposit. This means that you’re going to see a significant reduction in litter, new jobs and a great example of producer responsibility.
Marquis: So who would control the PRO under your plan?
Enck: Under the Englebright bill there is no PRO. The companies have to meet the standards, and they have to pay the eco-modulated fees. They’re free to set up a peer PRO, but if they do that there is some oversight by the state agency as well as some reporting and auditing requirements.
When the bottle bill was adopted, none of the bottle bills had PRO provisions. The industry joined forces and figured out the efficiency, rather than sending a Coca-Cola truck and a Pepsi truck separately to the supermarket. So to a certain extent, I believe there can be some market cooperation.
Marquis: I’m curious, are you working with (or advising) organizations in other states, as well as New York, that are advocating for EPR bills or other similar legislation?
Enck: In New York we work very closely with New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG). We also worked with a lot of grassroots groups, and that’s how we beat back weak bills in New York. In the Northeast there’s a group called Conservation Law Foundation, which is advocating very similar positions. Something similar to the Englebright bill has been introduced in Rhode Island and other states. Otherwise, we just answer questions and act as a resource for other organizations.
Marquis: How close to passing was “the bad bill?” What’s the next step forward?
Enck: The legislative session adjourned and it did not come up for a vote. They’ll be back in January and do this all over again.
Marquis: How about in Europe? Are there major differences between what’s done in Europe and in the bills that you’re proposing and others?
Enck: The concept of EPR was actually introduced in Europe by an academic in Sweden named Thomas Lindhqvist. In 1990 he wrote a formal report to the Swedish Ministry of the Environment. His original idea of EPR was essentially to require packaging companies to fund recycling, and that was about it. I think we can do a whole lot better than getting money to pay for plastics recycling, which we’ve learned does virtually nothing to actually solve the plastic problem. The European Union has had an EPR for packaging directive in place for years. But when we talked with people in Europe, we realized that while it was good to get the funding for recycling, it didn’t do anything to actually help with plastic reduction.. Plastic reduction is where our focus needs to be; not just on recycling plastics. I support recycling but plastics recycling has been a failure and we should not rely on it to solve the plastic pollution problem.
Marquis: Sure, that makes sense. So I’m curious, what is your pitch? How do you describe your proposal to people who don’t know anything about this topic?
Enck: Here’s my pitch: If you go into any American supermarket, you can’t avoid plastic, and the companies that make plastic have no financial responsibility to make it better, unless it is a beverate container covered by a bottle bill. As to what happens to this plastic after a consumer buys it, a consumer wants choices. We currently have very few choices, especially when it comes to packaging. So at the very least, we should be able to place a fee on the packaging that’s being sold. But more importantly, we need to develop packaging standards that are similar to our fuel-efficiency standards. I know that’s a long elevator pitch, the details really matter.