Ask Eartha: What Is Being Done About Excessive Packaging Waste

 In Ask Eartha

Dear Eartha, Today I received a five-pack of toy trucks I ordered online for my preschooler. After opening the shipping box, digging through foam peanuts, wrestling the plastic packaging, and cutting off the plastic ties, I freed the trucks and found myself with a mountain of trash. What gives?

Whether with toys or meal delivery services and more, we’ve all had the experience of receiving a much-awaited package, only to find layers upon layers of plastic and other packaging. I hope your preschooler didn’t get too worked up over the wait. I get worked up over the fact that Earth is home to 8.3 billion tons of plastic, of which only 9 percent is recycled. The good news is that a bipartisan solution to all kinds of pesky packaging is expected to show up soon in the Colorado legislature.

Extended Producer Responsibility

Extended Producer Responsibility, or EPR, is a policy that requires producers to take responsibility for the recycling (and disposal) of their products. EPR typically addresses a specific item such as paint, carpet, mattresses, and more.

Consider paint. In 2014, Colorado legislators passed a bill that required paint manufacturers to establish easy-access collection sites for recycling old or unused paint. The bill also approved a fee on all new paint sold in Colorado, which covers the cost of recycling the paint. By improving access to recycling and educating consumers, Colorado’s EPR policy dramatically increased paint recycling rates.

EPR is endorsed by major businesses such as The Coca-Cola Company, PepsiCo, H&M, Mars, Walmart, and more. And, it’s recognized internationally as a tool to establish a more sustainable economy.

Packaging and EPR

So what’s all this have to do with your toy truck experience? Well, there’s EPR for packaging, too. And Colorado legislators are expected to introduce a bill that establishes a producer responsibility program for packaging materials, paper products, and single-use food service ware sold or distributed in the state. If the bill passes, the cost for recycling the truck packaging – the box, the peanuts, the package, the zip ties, all of it – would be shouldered by the companies manufacturing the toys and shipping them to your home.

How does EPR work? Once implemented, producers would pay fees based on the recyclability of their packaging, how much recycled material it contains, and other environmental factors. For example, when shipping your package, the online retailer would pay higher fees for the peanuts and a much lower fee for a cardboard box made from recycled materials. The toy manufacturer will pay fees based on the packaging of the toy itself. This tiered pricing aims to incentivize more sustainable packaging practices.

The benefits are huge. Fees paid to the program fund a nonprofit that would educate Coloradans about recycling and – even better – fees would also fund existing and potentially new recycling programs for packaging. As an added bonus, EPR is shown to increase recycling access for all. Since passage of the 2014 paint bill, nearly 95% of Coloradans now have access to paint recycling within 15 miles.

What about costs to consumers? These days we’re all worried about inflation hitting our wallets hard. But research on EPR programs has found that this policy shouldn’t lead to noticeable cost increases, which is probably a relief to your kiddo, too.

Perhaps disappointing for we avid recyclers, the process outlined in the EPR bill, if passed, would take years before new recycling programs or changes in packaging are in place. But, with Oregon and Maine having passed EPR for packaging last year, Colorado can learn from their experiences. EPR isn’t a new topic for legislators, either. After all, a bill passed in 2020 called for the exploration of EPR policies in Colorado, and all kinds of stakeholders – corporations, government staff, environmental advocates, waste haulers and more – have been hard at work getting us to this bill.

What’s Next?

Once the bill is introduced, it will be critical to call your legislators and let them know you support EPR for packaging. Stay informed with updates from EcoCycle, one of the bill’s backers. And in the meantime, we should recycle and compost what we can. Our growing trash problem is just one planetary conundrum – so while we all practice a little patience on EPR, consider exploring more ways to protect our planet.

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