EPR still top recycling issue for state policymakers, but plastics and repair laws also on the horizon

State legislators are already hard at work crafting and introducing numerous recycling-related policies in 2023, which some advocates say are critical to accomplishing looming recycling and diversion goals.

Extended producer responsibility programs for packaging and other materials are once again a top priority for many states, and each year it has become increasingly common to see bills introduced. In 2023, more states are expected to introduce EPR bills that are also a vehicle for promoting larger circular economy strategies, such as recycled content mandates.

The debate over chemical recycling, also known by the plastics industry as advanced recycling, will continue to play out in state legislatures this year as conversations about how to handle waste diversion and recycling goals heat up.

A longstanding push to pass right-to-repair laws, which recyclers see as a key to keeping e-scrap from disposal, could also have its moment in 2023. States are also expected to handle more typical recycling policy items, such as bottle bill updates, debates over how to label products as recyclable, and how to reduce single-use plastic.

Focus on state actions is even more acute in 2023 because of general disappointment among recycling advocates in the federal government’s limited action on recycling efforts. The newly sworn in 118th Congress is divided, adding more uncertainty to the mix. Yet some recycling advocates are optimistic that the numerous recycling bills introduced last year, including two recycling bills widely applauded by the waste and recycling industry, will lay the groundwork for continued momentum in 2023. 

“Recycling is generally seen as a bipartisan issue” in Congress, which could help renew interest in the issues this year, said David Biderman, CEO of the Solid Waste Association of North America.

EPR proposals will get more nuanced and complex

States like Washington, Tennessee and New Jersey have already introduced EPR for packaging bills in January and numerous other states plan to introduce their bills soon. 

The difference this year is that states are expected to pursue more types of EPR bills that tackle the nuances of the state’s wider waste management picture, not just the mechanics of producer responsibility, said Kate Bailey, chief policy director at the Association of Plastics Recyclers. “These policies have to be built around an understanding of local infrastructure,” she said during Waste Dive’s recent recycling webinar.

California last year passed SB 54, which established EPR for packaging but also set up extensive recycling and reduction rate targets. States like Connecticut and Washington named the state as an influence over their own “EPR-plus” policies. 

Washington’s proposed WRAP Act would enact EPR for packaging and printed paper, but also establish recycling and reuse targets, enforce “truthful labeling” of recyclable products, and require scaled levels of postconsumer recycled content for certain packaging. It also would add a bottle bill program with a 10-cent deposit for a range of containers. 

Connecticut is also expected to introduce EPR for packaging in the next few weeks, along with other initiatives requiring minimum postconsumer recycled content standards.

“Packaging is obviously on everyone’s mind,” but states like Connecticut and others are starting to see how connecting multiple waste management principles will lead to better long-term solutions, said Tom Metzner, an environmental analyst with the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection.

Yet the same legislative hurdles as years past — competing stakeholder priorities, concerns over costs and disagreements over how much control producers should have over the program — won’t go away anytime soon, said Heather Trim, executive director of Zero Waste Washington, a main supporter of the WRAP Act. In Washington, haulers worry about how possible EPR bills could affect their facility investments, and municipalities and MRFs wonder how changes could affect their contracts. “The biggie is really the control and the ‘push me, pull you’ between the producers and the waste industry and all the other players. So that’s a really, really big factor,” she said during the Waste Dive webinar.

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