Break the waste cycle

Producer responsibility policies to move the U.S. towards zero waste

Election Day is less than a week away, and come January, returning and newly elected legislators will face a mounting plastic waste crisis. Nearly 100,000 tons of plastic -- enough to fill roughly 1.5 football stadiums -- are thrown away every day in the United States. Break the Waste Cycle highlights producer responsibility, an emerging trend in which product-makers – not individuals or taxpayers – are responsible for the waste they create. 


U.S. PIRG Education Fund

The U.S. throws out enough plastic every 16 hours to fill the Cowboys football stadium, and that amount is increasing. Our society continually produces goods designed to be used once or temporarily and then thrown away. Most discarded materials are then landfilled or incinerated, creating pollution and requiring producers to extract more natural resources to make new materials.

This waste is by design. Producers have the ability to make products that are more durable and more easily fixed when they break, as well as packaging that is less wasteful and more readily reused or recycled. They simply choose not to. The reason is clear: As long as individuals, governments, our environment and future generations – not producers – bear the costs of our throwaway society, those who design and make the products we buy have no incentive to change. 

Holding producers responsible for the waste they create can incentivize a shift to a circular economy – one in which less waste is produced, products are built to last and easy to repair, and remaining materials are recycled or composted. Such a system would create zero waste, eliminating the need for landfills and trash incinerators, conserving natural resources and reducing pollution.

Producer responsibility programs around the world have existed for decades and have successfully increased collection and recycling rates for the products they cover. With the growing urgency of the climate crisis, the rising impact of plastic pollution, and the continuing impacts of China’s waste import ban on America’s recycling system, U.S. cities and states, as well as the federal government, should adopt thoughtfully designed producer responsibility programs – especially for packaging and printed products. 

Producer responsibility is a proven approach to reducing waste and improving recycling.

Under producer responsibility programs, manufacturers – not individuals or taxpayers – are responsible for the waste their products create, and bear responsibility for the collection and proper recycling of those products at the end of their useful lives. This incentivizes producers to design their products to be more environmentally friendly throughout their lifecycle.

Programs that make producers responsible for waste typically cover products that are hazardous, hard to recycle or compost, or that generate a lot of waste. These include batteries, paint, mercury thermostats, carpet, pesticides, tires, and pharmaceuticals. Many states have programs in place for these items.

Responsibility for disposal may take the form of producers physically collecting their products at the end of their lives, or supporting the collection and disposal process financially through payments to a producer responsibility organization (PRO) that funds and sometimes operates the collection and processing of material on producers’ behalf. It can also be a combination of both.

Producer responsibility programs in the United States have made a difference in encouraging recycling and reducing waste.

  • California’s Used Mattress Recovery and Recycling Act requires mattress manufacturers that sell their products in California to create an effective system to collect and refurbish or recycle used mattresses. Manufacturers and retailers are required to register with the Mattress Recycling Council (MRC), the nonprofit stewardship organization that implements the program. Retailers must also offer to pick up consumers’ old mattresses when they purchase new ones and transport the old mattresses to a recycling facility. Since it came into being in 2016, the MRC’s “Bye Bye Mattress” program in California has recycled more than 5 million mattresses.

Producer responsibility is particularly important when it comes to addressing waste from packaging, paper and single-use plastics.

  • Containers and packaging account for roughly 30 percent of municipal solid waste (MSW), with 80.1 million tons of these materials thrown away in 2017. These materials clog landfills and incinerators, especially following the recent decision by several foreign countries – most notably China – to stop accepting most U.S. waste exports, dramatically increasing the cost of recycling for many U.S. communities. 

  • Producer responsibility has been a success in boosting recycling rates for containers and packaging. In British Columbia, for example, where producer responsibility legislation for packaging and printed paper (PPP) came into effect in 2011, the stewardship organization Recycle British Columbia collected 78 percent of the PPP material producers sold in 2018, and recycled 90 percent of the amount collected. In contrast, an estimated 50 to 57 percent of material was recovered before the law went into effect. 

Several U.S. jurisdictions are considering producer responsibility programs for packaging. These proposals are often augmented by other policies – such as minimum recycled content standards for packaging – that support and enhance the value of producer responsibility. Some examples include: 

  • Washington: In May 2019, Washington adopted legislation directing the drafting of a study on how to reduce the volume of plastic packaging sold in the state; make it all recyclable, reusable or compostable; and make it with at least 20 percent recycled content by 2025. A plan with recommendations for a producer responsibility policy framework was submitted to the State Department of Ecology in September 2020. 

  • Maine: A bill introduced in January 2020 requires the establishment of a stewardship organization that will collect fees from producers of packaging material, calculated according to the toxicity and percentage of recycled content in the material. The fees will be used to reimburse municipalities for costs incurred in recycling and waste management. The bill did not pass this year, but is expected to be reintroduced in 2021. 

  • California: In December 2018, the California Circular Economy and Plastic Pollution Reduction Act was introduced, requiring manufacturers of single-use plastic packaging and food-ware to reduce or recycle these materials by 75 percent, and to make them all recyclable or compostable by 2030.  This bill did not pass during California’s latest two-year legislative session, but is expected to be reintroduced. In the meantime, a ballot initiative requiring producers to pay a fee on single-use plastic packaging has collected enough signatures for the 2022 ballot. 

  • Federal: February 2020 saw the introduction of federal legislation to hold producers accountable for wasteful products, reduce packaging, and phase out single-use plastic products. The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act would place the financial burden of waste management and the clean-up of plastic pollution on the companies that manufacture and sell those products, and require producers to design their products in such a way as to minimize their environmental impacts, among other requirements. 

Effective producer responsibility programs can play an important role in moving the United States toward a circular, zero-waste economy. In adopting those programs, states and the federal government should:

  1. Integrate producer responsibility programs into an overall approach to waste reduction that:

  • First and foremost, reduces the amount of waste generated;

  • Encourages the reuse, repair and refurbishment of products whenever possible;

  • Recycles or composts all remaining materials, and;

  • Landfills or incinerates as little material as possible. 

  1. Require producers to bear all of the end-of-life costs of their products, including waste collection, hauling, recycling, composting, landfilling, incineration and litter cleanup costs.

  2. Adjust any fees to incentivize producers to use recycled content in their products and design products that last and are easy and economical to repair, recycle or compost.

  3. Incentivize the repair or reuse of products where possible, and the recycling or composting of products that have reached the end of their useful lives.

  4. Set high standards for oversight and transparency at every stage of the process to ensure that producers are complying with requirements.