10 Principles of a Successful Producer Responsibility for Packaging Law

Different types of used plastic packaging arranged on a yellow background
The real drivers of the plastic pollution crisis are large corporations that create and market products in single-use packaging. Photo Credit: Almost Green Studio via Shutterstock

Every so often, a legislative policy really catches fire. Right now, that’s happening with producer responsibility. More specifically, producer responsibility for packaging laws. And it makes sense as to why.

Every day we learn more about the widespread environmental damage associated with single-use plastics and packaging. At first, many people viewed plastic and packaging waste primarily as an ocean pollution issue. Today, we understand plastic pollution as a crisis with deep, intersecting impacts on everything from our climate to public health. As a result, concerns continue to rise. And people desperately want to see bold action that addresses this worsening crisis.

This is where producer responsibility for packaging comes into play. When implemented correctly, this type of legislation requires corporate giants to take on the financial burden of managing the packaging waste their products create. What’s more, this legislation can spark systemic change that reduces many of the impacts associated with plastic and packaging waste.

At their worst, producer responsibility for packaging laws create complex and impossible-to-navigate systems that don’t result in the changes we want to see. Instead, they offer cover that allows companies to continue producing polluting packaging waste while pretending to work towards solutions.

Four years ago, producer responsibility for packaging laws weren’t on anyone’s mind in the U.S. While the policy had been widely adopted across Europe and Canada, it hadn’t taken hold here. But that quickly changed. In the last four years, four states (Maine, Oregon, Colorado, and California) have passed producer responsibility for packaging laws. And many more have tried. In fact, the last two years have seen over a dozen states introduce producer responsibility for packaging laws.

The rapid rise in interest in this policy can be attributed to many things, including the:

However, at its core, producer responsibility for packaging’s rapid rise to stardom is grounded in equity. For decades, the public has been conditioned to believe that the plastic pollution problem is their fault. This lie has been unwoven. Now, it is widely understood that the real drivers of the plastic pollution crisis are large corporations that create and market products in single-use packaging that was designed to be difficult to manage.

Automated conveyer system for packaging food in single-use plastic packaging
Photo: i viewfinder via Shutterstock

Producer responsibility for packaging laws address this by forcing these companies to take ownership of the problem. They do so by requiring plastic packaging giants to pay fees that help increase recycling, fund waste reduction efforts, and create the infrastructure and programs needed to transition to reusable and refillable packaging. What’s not to like about that?

There’s just one problem. This overarching policy often gets distorted in legislative language. As a result, you end up with a complex, polluter-controlled system that creates bureaucracy – not results. This is by design. These companies don’t want to change their business practices or redesign their product packaging. Because, while the status quo isn’t working for consumers or our environment, it is working for companies’ bottom lines.

Germany provides a great example. In 1991, Germany became the first country to pass a producer responsibility for packaging law. In the 30+ years since that landmark, the system hasn’t produced the desired results. While it did create modest improvements in recycling rates, it failed to reduce packaging waste and it failed to force companies to redesign products with reuse and recyclability in mind.

Interest in producer responsibility for packaging laws in the U.S. was, at first, met with backlash by large corporations. But opposing these laws didn’t work in their favor. Why? Because of public pressure. So, these large companies took a different course of action. Now, they attempt to undermine producer responsibility for packaging laws by making them weak and ineffective. By softening these laws, companies don’t have to change their business practices. What’s more, once these weak laws are in place, polluting companies use them to block efforts to pass stronger, more impactful measures. These companies point to the weak laws and claim they have already solved the problem, and therefore, no further action is needed.

After analyzing dozens of bills and seeing the common tricks plastic polluters use to undermine producer responsibility for packaging proposals, we teamed up with our friends at Beyond Plastic. Together, we developed a list of ten key requirements every successful producer responsibility for packaging law must have.

10 Principles for Effective Packaging Reduction Policies

  1. Establish Environmental Standards for Packaging – We need environmental standards for packaging. This includes mandatory packaging reduction and recycling standards. Reduction can be achieved either through elimination or by switching to reuse and refill systems.
  2. Reduce Toxics in Packaging – Companies must eliminate known toxic chemicals and substances, such as PFAS, formaldehyde, mercury, and lead, should be removed from packaging.
  3. No Plastic Burning (“Chemical Recycling” or “Advanced Recycling”) – “Chemical recycling” and “advanced recycling” are mostly waste-to-fuel technologies that are almost always placed in low-income communities and communities of color. These technologies should not be considered recycling. And the definitions in any policy must make that clear.
  4. Include a Modernized Beverage Deposit Law – Deposit return laws, or Bottle Bills, are the most effective way to handle beverage containers, making them the best examples of producer responsibility. These programs should always be included in packaging reduction policies.
  5. Provide Financial Relief to Taxpayers and Consumers – Packaging companies should pay fees that not only reimburse cities, towns, and consumers for the cost of recycling packaging material, but also provide new funding for projects that reduce packaging waste and improve recycling.
  6. Include both Residential and Commercial Waste – Commercial waste makes up between 40%–60% of our waste stream. That said, producer responsibility for packaging laws must apply to the packaging generated in all sectors.
  7. Don’t Put the Packaging Industry in Charge – There needs to be binding performance targets and strong accountability and oversight by state agencies.
  8. Ensure Strong Oversight and Accountability – A law is only as strong as its enforcement, meaning a packaging law should create an Office of Inspector General to enforce the program and make sure state agencies receive the funding necessary to implement and enforce the law.
  9. Avoid Glaring Loopholes – Make sure the bill language does not allow packaging producers to wiggle out of compliance.
  10. Seek Transparency and Inclusion in the Process – Do not negotiate this complex and important policy behind closed doors. Public hearings and roundtables must be held so that all residents have a say in the process. Only then can it be decided what is best for the people and the environment.

We chose these principles because together, they create a comprehensive producer responsibility system. A system where producers can’t weaken reduction, reuse, and recycling standards and don’t control the money that should be funding waste reduction and recycling efforts.

We designed these principles to also avoid industry-backed loopholes that could undermine the entire system, like allowing for plastic-burning technologies to count as recycling.

It’s no secret that plastic recycling is failing. In fact, right now, only 5% of plastic gets recycled. But rather than producing less plastic, companies put their money towards peddling a new false-solution. A “solution” they deceptively call “advanced recycling,” “chemical recycling,” or even “molecular recycling.” With a name like “advanced recycling,” it sounds as though corporations have an elixir to our plastic problem. In truth, their “solution” is just a different way to burn plastic.

Photo: Ramil Gibadullin via Shutterstock

Allowing these false solutions to count as recycling under producer responsibility laws would be detrimental. Because the money producers pay into the program wouldn’t go towards waste reduction, but to building toxic facilities that burn plastics.

Plastic and packaging companies see the writing on the wall. Public outcries demand solutions that hold corporations accountable for the mess they’ve made. We cannot allow these companies to co-opt progressive environmental legislation like producer responsibility. That simply won’t work. To truly reduce waste, these laws and policies must include our ten core principles.

Beyond Plastics and Just Zero incorporated these principles into a model producer responsibility for packaging law that can be introduced in any state. Download the bill today and talk to your legislator about introducing producer responsibility legislation in your state that reflects these core principles.

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