When it comes to combating climate change, we’ve been taught to prioritize the three R’s: reduce, reuse, and recycle. But figuring out the best way to do this can be confusing and difficult to navigate when the burden is placed on individuals. Extended producer responsibility (EPR), most recently proposed in Governor Hochul’s upcoming budget, seeks to take that pressure off of individuals and put it back on the producers of the goods we consume.
What is extended producer responsibility?
Under the current system, consumer brands are disconnected from the lifespan of the products they produce; because they are not responsible for what happens to consumer goods once they have been used, producers have no incentive for making their products environmentally friendly. In New York, Governor Hochul has proposed as part of her executive budget Extended Producer Responsibility legislation, which would place the responsibility on producers, rather than overwhelmed municipalities, for recycling or otherwise responsibly disposing of packaging waste at the end of its lifetime
The program is designed to reimburse local governments for the expenses of collecting and processing recyclables. Producers, in turn, will pay for the collection and recycling of the packaging materials they distribute into the state, thereby connecting consumer brand owners not only with the materials they create, but to what happens to them once they are no longer useful.
This proposal has five set goals, including: reducing packaging waste; making it easier to recycle; investing in modernizing the recycling infrastructure across New York State; ensuring that all New Yorkers have access to recycling programs in order to encourage higher recycling rates; and providing consumer education in order to mitigate confusion for residents and minimizing contamination in the recycling stream.
Why is it necessary on a community level?
First and foremost, the Governor’s would place the financial burden for recycling on producers, rather than local municipalities and the communities they provide goods to. In doing this, municipalities will not only have more resources to pour back into their communities, but producers will also become more aware of the impacts their products have when it comes to waste management.
As it currently exists, the recycling system is overburdened with materials that are difficult to dispose of effectively. In addition, local citizens can easily become confused about what can or cannot be recycled, and the already-overworked municipalities don’t have the resources to educate the public. The system is unsustainable, and has led to stagnant recycling rates, financial burdens on taxpayers that could be addressed by producers, and inequitable access to recycling overall.
The environmental benefits of EPR
The establishment of a program that places the responsibility on producers would not only be financially beneficial for municipalities, but would also be beneficial to the environment. With the current system, burdened by a lack of clarity around recyclable materials, New York loses around 860,000 tons of potentially recyclable materials every year, translating to around only 20% of citizens utilizing recycling programs. However, in regions where EPR has been instituted, that number has jumped to 70%, driven by ease of access through increased funding.
By extension, EPR seeks to mitigate the amount of greenhouse gasses currently entering the atmosphere through the waste management system. Referencing New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) studies on greenhouse gas emission trends over an almost thirty-year period, any conversation about production and waste management must consider the entire energy cycle of a produced material. This includes energy from raw material extraction, transportation of those materials, product manufacturing and packaging, and then transportation of the goods or packaging to the marketplace.
This massive output of energy and emissions then continues into the end-of-life process of products, which are often not disposed of properly. The Governor’s EPR proposal would allow New York State to lower its greenhouse gas emissions, which in 2016 alone exceeded 205 million metric tons, 12.8 million metric tons of which were from landfills, according to NYSERDA.
The economic benefits of EPR
Not only will this legislation support localities who had previously shouldered the weight of the expenses of waste management, but an overhaul and modernization of the waste system would put money back in the pockets of local communities. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the recycling industry in 2012 accounted for 681,000 jobs, and $37.8 million in wages. Considering the projected boost this legislation can be expected to provide to the recycling industry, New Yorkers can expect to see more job opportunities, which translated to $5.5 billion in tax revenue nationwide in 2012.
The inclusion of EPR in the 2022 State budget provides opportunities for economic growth and environmental support across the state. As it is considered by the legislature, legislators will consider how this program will allow New York to prioritize the needs of its communities, not only by easing the financial burden on municipalities and taxpayers across the state, but also by working to minimize the rate of change driven by greenhouse emissions.