As the United Nations Environment Programme convenes the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee to develop a global agreement on plastic pollution the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is also seeking feedback on its Draft National Strategy to Prevent Plastic Pollution. This strategy aims at “eliminating the release of plastic waste from land-based sources into the environment by 2040” and complements the national goal to increase the recycling rate of plastic packaging to 50% by 2030.
At the same time, U.S. brands and retailers have set ambitious public commitments to make their packaging more widely recyclable and to contain increasing levels of recycled content. But, with plastic recycling rates languishing at 10% in the United States, there’s simply not enough post-consumer recycled (PCR) content to go around. In fact, we estimate that the U.S. plastic recycling rate must increase two to three times for brands to fulfill their 2030 PCR commitments.1
Increased consumer recycling education is needed to help meet national, state and industry goals. So are improved recycling access and more innovative collection programs. Perhaps most importantly, we need a significant buildout of U.S. plastics recycling infrastructure.
So, how can we build the new system and marketplaces needed for a circular future? Earlier this year, GreenDot shared our comments on EPA’s Draft National Strategy to Prevent Plastic Pollution. We believe Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) is an essential tool in making this happen, yet any solution must take into account the realities of the U.S. economy and local conditions.
EPR Can Serve as a Powerful Tool
Big picture, industry needs to close the gap between supply and demand to keep plastic packaging out of landfills and the environment — and instead keep it in the economy. EPR helps achieve a sustainable circular system, making it a powerful tool to prevent plastic pollution. Additionally, higher recycling rates will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by decreasing reliance on virgin materials to make packaging.
GreenDot has more than 30 years of hands-on experience in EPR management and recycling solutions. We’ve seen firsthand how the fundamentals of EPR have increased waste collection and stimulated private investment across Europe and Canada.
In Germany, for example, we created the world’s first nationwide EPR program for household packaging. This program has been instrumental in driving Germany’s plastic packaging recycling rate from 3% in 1991 to over 60% today. We process over 70,000 tons of post-consumer plastic (including hard-to-recycle plastic films) every year in Germany, and our facilities contribute an annual reduction of more than 600,000 tons of CO2 equivalents annually through recycling.
Proactive and Collaborative
The U.S. is only beginning its EPR journey. As of September 2023, four states have enacted packaging EPR legislation and several other states have introduced packaging EPR bills, yet many U.S. states are not likely to have a packaging EPR bill in the next several years. For individual companies, this provides a challenge and an opportunity to shape packaging recovery programs in non-EPR jurisdictions and ensure their packaging materials are collected, recycled and available to use in new packaging.
Companies that sell across the U.S. must comply with a growing number of EPR schemes and plastic packaging expectations. For them, the landscape may continue to become more complicated, unless the plastics value chain comes together to proactively shape and harmonize what comes next.
A smart starting point is tapping into the lessons learned in regions like Europe and Canada that have already implemented EPR legislation. It is vital, though, to ensure that we design a solution that works best for the U.S. We also see an opportunity for industry to build out collaborative initiatives and the much-needed recycling infrastructure in areas where EPR regulations do not yet exist.
These initiatives have the potential to advance more quickly than the enactment and implementation of mandatory EPR policies. They can provide opportunities to connect with community needs, secure reliable collection for hard-to-recycle packaging formats, and increase recycling rates across the country.
Regulations are coming. It will take true collaboration across the entire packaging and recycling value chains to address this challenge head-on, and we shouldn’t wait to do what’s right for our businesses, communities and the environment. By working together now, we can build out this new landscape and create opportunity for the recovery of packaging across the U.S.
To learn more about GreenDot’s offerings on EPR services, recycling solutions and recycled-content, contact us today or connect with us on LinkedIn.
1 Compared to a 2018 U.S. plastic recycling baseline. PCR commitments range from 25–40% recycled content in products by 2030. This statistic is derived using data from Ellen MacArthur Foundation and a survey of top brand and retailer PCR commitments in the U.S.