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The Path to a Modern, Effective Recycling System

By making producers responsible for the recycling of their products, Colorado is showing the way toward improving recycling rates, reducing unnecessary packaging and lightening the burden on local governments.

Closeup of trash bins in different colors for landfill, recycling, etc.
(Shutterstock)
The recycling system in the United States is failing to create a circular economy. Hundreds of millions of pounds of recyclable plastic, paper, aluminum and glass are buried in landfills every year rather than being remade into new products. It’s wasteful and, most important, avoidable.

America’s leading beverage companies are already working to get their valuable bottles and cans back so they can be remade into new ones and decrease the industry’s use of new plastic. These efforts range from designing packaging to be fully recyclable and making significant investments to modernize collection systems to educating consumers on the importance of recycling. But these important collective actions are still not enough. Good collection policy is essential to achieving the scale necessary for a truly circular recycling economy.

Nearly a year ago, we called for Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) as the best opportunity to reduce the use of unnecessary packaging and create circularity for the rest. We see the current state of recycling as unacceptable, and we sought out states willing to look at alternative policies that would produce the kind of circular economy for packaging and printed paper that American companies have been working within in Europe and Canada for years. Just this month, Colorado lawmakers passed legislation, fully supported by beverage producers, environmentalists and local recyclers, that will create the United States’ first true EPR system. Gov. Jared Polis signed the legislation on June 3.

This innovative collection policy means what it says: Producers take on responsibility for operating and funding a collection system aimed at achieving higher rates of recycling for the packaging and paper they produce. Local governments will no longer have the burden of funding recycling services, and millions more Coloradans will get convenient access to recycling.

Here’s how it will work in Colorado: Producers of packaging and printed paper are assessed fees based on the cost of recycling the materials they use, with incentives for better package design. A nonprofit “producer responsibility organization,” or PRO, will run and pay for the collection system, with oversight by government and the public.

Making the private sector responsible for the collection of its packaging and paper is the linchpin to a successful EPR system. The PRO collects and manages producer funds, with all revenue dedicated to the operation and oversight of the program. The aim is to significantly increase the collection and sale of all recyclables, including bottles and cans, and to provide producers with better access to purchase recycled materials so they can be remade into new products.

Industries and companies are keenly aware that the private sector needs to do its part to bring substandard recycling programs to a higher performance level. Companies agree that a well-designed EPR system is the most cost-effective way to boost the amount of recycled materials needed to meet commitments to use more recycled content in their products and reduce their plastic footprint.

Government has an important role, too. It authorizes the design and goals for the system, with oversight from a state agency to ensure transparency and accountability. Local governments supported this model of EPR because it will be cost-effective and efficient for residents. Environmental advocates pushed it forward because it will expand recycling access, reduce waste and keep recyclables out of nature.

To those who may be skeptical of turning recycling over to private-sector producers, keep in mind that producers of packaging have a financial incentive to operate a system that is efficient, effective, convenient to consumers and provides access to recycled materials. Recyclable materials are valuable. Nearly 6 million tons of recyclable materials are sent to landfills in Colorado every year. Those lost materials have a market value of about $100 million.

Colorado has significant potential for environmental and economic benefits from increased recycling, including the job growth and economic development from collecting, processing and utilizing recycled materials in new products. EPR will lead to savings for local governments and taxpayers, as well as reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, landfilling and dependence on fossil fuels.

How the system is built matters. Proposals have advanced in other states that fall short of the innovative design that has been successful elsewhere. That’s why we’re encouraged to see Colorado reject the current state of recycling and insist on a better path forward. Colorado’s vision of EPR sets the standard for other states as they consider ways to improve their recycling systems that are right for them.



Sheila Bonini is senior vice president of private sector engagement at the World Wildlife Fund. She can be reached at sheila.bonini@wwfus.org. Katherine Lugar is president and chief executive officer of American Beverage, the national trade organization representing companies that manufacture and distribute non-alcoholic beverages in the United States. She can be reached at klugar@americanbeverage.org.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
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