‘Producer responsibility’ explained: Getting plastic polluters to clean up their mess

Right now, plastics producers have no incentive to stop flooding our lives with throwaway single-use plastic. We can change that.

Beyond plastic

Jose Angel Astor Rocha | Shutterstock.com

Every day, companies manufacture and sell us plastic products meant to be used once and then thrown away, often mislabeling them as recyclable.

Consumers use these products as they’re intended and toss them in the appropriate bin. But what happens after we toss them away? Who pays to manage and dispose of that plastic waste? Us, the consumers and taxpayers.

Meanwhile, our local communities are left to deal with the environmental costs — from overflowing waste bins and landfills to plastic pollution in our parks and waterways.

As long as we have to bear the costs of our throwaway society — rather than the companies making the plastic that’s designed to become pollution — not much is likely to change. That is, plastics producers have no incentive to stop making more disposable, non-recyclable plastic and transition to more sustainable options. 

So let’s take a closer look at how we can change this broken system and finally put the onus of dealing with plastic waste onto those who produce all this plastic in the first place:

Think about how much single-use plastic you encounter in your everyday life. All of us are utterly surrounded by it, whether it’s at the grocery store, in a delivery from Amazon or some other online retailer, or even at our favorite restaurants (those plastic foam takeout containers can stick around in landfills or in our environment for centuries).

We try our best to recycle what we can — but at the end of the day, a measly 9% of all the plastic we use actually gets recycled. And the 91% that doesn’t? For the companies that produce the plastic in the first place, it’s out of sight, out of mind. 

After all, it’s the taxpayers, not the plastics producers, who pick up the bill for waste management.

Now, imagine if plastics producers were financially responsible for helping solve this dilemma. More specifically, imagine if we:

  • required producers to physically collect their products at the end of their life cycle if their products aren’t readily recyclable;
  • required producers to pay fees based on their products’ negative impact to an outside organization for the collection and disposal of their products; or
  • a combination of both.

That would incentivize the production of more sustainable alternatives (or, better yet, the reduction of how much material a packaging producer makes, period) and promote the recycling of old materials into new. It could also help us transition away from our current “linear” economy, where raw materials are extracted, turned into new products, and ultimately thrown away forever.

Together, we’re making this future a reality. Already, across the country, programs that make producers responsible for their waste have successfully diverted waste from landfills and have shifted certain waste costs from municipalities onto producers. Some programs have been even more impactful — incentivizing producers to make their packaging recyclable and their products longer-lasting and easy to reuse.

These successes demonstrate that expanding such policies to more regions and products can help instigate the shift to a circular economy, where no waste is landfilled and all materials are recovered and reused.

The urgency is clear: Not only does our country currently throw away a mind-boggling 100,000 tons of plastic waste every single day, but in fact that rate is likely accelerating. Plastics producers are actually making more and more new plastic products each year — and still largely leaving us, the consumers, to foot the bill for all that waste.

A better future is possible — a future where companies and plastics manufacturers prioritize the sustainability of their products and consumers aren’t left holding the bag. Producer responsibility policies are a key ingredient in building the zero-waste world we all want.

As the year comes to a close, we’re looking ahead to what we can accomplish in 2023 as we  work to expand producer responsibility programs and help build a zero-waste future. But we can’t do it without grassroots support from people like you. Will you donate to our End of Year Drive today to help give us the resources we need to continue moving our country beyond plastic?

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Authors

Matt Casale

Director, Environment Campaigns, PIRG

Matt oversees PIRG's toxics, transportation and zero waste campaigns and leads PIRG’s climate program to promote a cleaner, healthier future for all Americans. Matt lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, with his wife, two daughters and chihuahua.

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